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What Makes Smart Kids Eventually Fall Apart

Photograph by Twenty20

Sometimes I wish all of the parents of the world would get together and agree to stop pushing kids to succeed from the moment they can walk and talk. I'm not sure when the race to Harvard became a thing, but it seems to have reached toxic levels.

I have had more than one parent sit on my couch and tell me stories of how their kids could read when they were practically toddlers and completed fourth-grade math in second grade. So why, oh why, were those super smart, quick-to-excel children falling apart? They didn't see themselves as the kind of parents that piled on the pressure. No, they were certain that they were simply inspiring their kids to achieve more. They were helping.

High parental aspiration leads to better academic achievement, right? As it turns out, yes and no.

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Recent research published by the American Psychological Association shows that while high parental aspiration can help students achieve some academic success, unrealistic parental aspiration can have the opposite effect. According to this study, when parental aspiration exceeds realistic expectations, children 's achievement actually decreases. It can undermine their learning potential.

Funny enough, when I speak to groups of parents about the toxic effects of childhood stress, they all nod their heads in agreement. They want their kids to experience a happy childhood. They want to step back from the culture of overachievement that seems to go hand-in-hand with the current climate of busy that exists in this country. The problem, they tell me, is that they don't know how to stop what they've already begun.

To step away from all of the things and reduce the pressure their kids endure is to let other kids have an "advantage" over their kids. If they don't push them academically, athletically and otherwise, their kids won't get into the colleges of their choice (when that day arrives). I hear this exact worry over and over again.

No one can do everything without hitting a wall at some point, and yet we enroll kids in every little thing and expect perfect grades simply because we can.

Parents feel the pressure to raise highly successful children, and that pressure trickles down to the kids—who are low on sleep and high on stress. It's a difficult cycle to break.

What can parents do reduce the pressure-cooker nature of modern day childhood?

1, Talk about emotional health

The fact is that many kids are under increased stress today. And I'm not just talking about teens looking to the future. We are over-scheduling kids of all ages and buying into things like "specializing" in sports and increased after school enrichment to raise well-rounded kids.

We are in the thick of it, parents, and we need to start by acknowledging that this isn't healthy.

Parents have a tendency to gloss over the hard stuff and look to the the good stuff to focus on things like gratitude and happiness. The truth is, teaching kids (of all ages) to work through the hard stuff is key to empowering them to live grateful and happy lives.

Talk about emotional health. Label and discuss feelings of anxiety, sadness, stress and depression. Be the helper that you want your kids to seek out when the going gets tough.

2. Empower your kids to make hard choices

No one can do everything without hitting a wall at some point, and yet we enroll kids in every little thing and expect perfect grades simply because we can. Then we rely on phrases like, "He wants to do it all" as an excuse for over-scheduling and lack of sleep.

Teach your kids to make hard choices to improve their overall mental health. Sure, maybe you have a go-getter on your hands who wants to play two sports and piano while learning to bake. It's up to you to teach your child to understand the importance of balance.

Drilling your kids in their free time won't actually help them excel. In fact, it will most likely increase their stress levels and leave them feeling resentful.

Put your monthly calendar on a giant piece of paper and tape it to the wall. Step back and look at it as a family. Talk about ways to decrease the stress load. One sport per season is healthy. Packing in an extra sport can have negative consequences for the teams involved (Your child can't be at two games at the same time) and leave your child feeling stretched thin. Make a hard choice and try that other sport during a different season.

3. Set realistic expectations

Some kids love math. Others excel in writing or science. All children deserve the gift of time to hone their skills and learn at a pace that works for them. Drilling your kids in their free time won't actually help them excel. In fact, it will most likely increase their stress levels and leave them feeling resentful.

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Offer guidance when your children seek your help, but don't try to force unrealistic learning goals on them. They will work through their weaknesses and continue to build upon their strengths. That's all part of the learning process. But they will only achieve this if they feel supported. Pile on the pressure and you just might find that stress and anxiety hinder their learning.

Step back, worried parents, your children will learn and grow. All you have to do is let them.

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