Almost everybody in America knows what a Grade Point Average is. A standard of measuring academic achievement, the GPA is sometimes incorrectly seen as the definition of intelligence and potential. This can lead to many children experiencing academic anxiety and stress. On one hand, academic measures and standards are important to provide goals and be a basis for implementing good structure. On the other hand, it is often viewed as the only measure of achievement.
When having a high GPA becomes the definition of success, it can become a destructive and anxiety-ridden road. A child that is obsessed solely on getting good grades can become stunted in their creativity and individuality. Ultimately, it may affect their mental health. Keep reading for helpful ways to guide your child through their academic anxiety and stress.
Why do kids get obsessed with getting good grades?
Kids want to please. It may not seem that way when they’re throwing tantrums or rolling their eyes at you. Generally speaking, however, kids are obsessed with getting good grades to please their parents.
You might be thinking, “I don’t see the problem with that, as a matter of fact, isn’t that the point? I mean, I only have the best intentions and if they are pleasing me, they are doing well!”. You might even have a reward system for good grades. Maybe you make a big fuss every time that your kiddo gets an A.
But what about when a child is – for whatever reason – unable to meet those expectations? You may not necessarily yell “What happened with this grade here?!”. Instead, you may just frown a bit, let out a sigh and say, “well, you tried your best, right?”.
Here’s the thing…you don’t have to say anything. Non-verbal communication can be just as strong, if not stronger, than verbal communication. Both young children and teenagers are not only extremely perceptive, they are also geniuses at “filling in the blanks”. They can tell what that look was about, and what that sigh was about. They get it. You’re disappointed in them and they are too. Naturally, a child wants their parent’s love and approval.
Hey! I let my kid know that no one is perfect!
If you can raise your hand and say that you’ve never been at fault, or have never said anything that might be counter-productive to your child, then we are in awe of you and will outright admit that we’re not part of that club.
That being said, if you can truthfully say that your child’s academic anxiety and stress, and obsession with good grades has nothing to do with your own attitudes or beliefs (conscious or subconscious) about how heavily grades are tied to your kid’s sense of self and achievement? It is time to consider that there may be other factors at play.
It’s quite possible that your child has unrealistic ideas about what is needed to please you or gain your approval. Or perhaps there is a culture of grade obsession in the classroom or at school.
Talk to your children. See if they can identify reasons why they’re striving for high grades. Get a sense of how they feel when they don’t do so well. Children need to learn how to manage distress in positive and grounding ways. They will most often take their cues on how to act or react from their parents or primary caregivers.
So…How can you stop your child from obsessing over good grades and reduce academic anxiety and stress?
Help your child refocus by emphasizing the development of a good work ethic and a positive attitude. Teach your child that hard work is what counts in the end. Regardless of the grade they receive, they always have the opportunity to do better and change their outcome.
It is better to say to a child “Wow, what a great job you did! You really worked hard and look at how that worked out for you!” than to say “Wow, you’re so smart!”. Why? Because a child who hears the message that their hard work paid off is more likely to continue to try to find solutions to challenges than a child who only receives accolades for being smart and therefore be more likely to put the pressure on him or herself to be sure to continue to show that he/she is “smart”.
These are also the kids that are devastated when they receive a bad grade because they didn’t get the message that it is okay to not always be perfect. Until they mature a bit, children are typically very black and white and terms of their thought process, so we cannot assume that a child who is told that he or she is “smart” is capable of attributing it to being a “hard worker”.
In summary, while grades are an important factor in their academic success, it is important for our children to know that grades don’t define them and their experience with academic anxiety and stress can be changed.
Accentuate the Other Positives
Look for and point out other things in your kids that they stand out for or are good at. Are they good at coloring (and coloring outside the lines is totally okay!), are they kind to their friends, do they have a good attitude when things don’t go well, do they always tell the truth or fess up when they haven’t been completely honest, do they offer their seat to someone more vulnerable or offer to help without being asked, or perhaps they do a good job at apologizing when they are wrong or made a mistake. These are the everyday things that are easily ignored but that, with a little recognition can boost your child’s self-perception and confidence.
Every person has their strengths and weaknesses, and tests and grades aren’t always the best measure of one’s knowledge or potential. Remind your child that it’s not about what they know, but who they are as a person that truly matters.
And just for clarity’s sake here folks- we’re into good grades! We like ’em. A lot! But life is not measured by just a GPA, and neither should a child’s sense of worth.
If your child is experiencing academic anxiety and stress, if you need help making the best of their educational experience, or if you’re looking for some guidance on how to make changes in the way that you are communicating, a trained professional can help with anxiety therapy.
About the author(s)
Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.