Parental expectations can be both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, when our parents believe in us and encourage us to achieve our best, we may feel more motivated, and carry that sense of self-belief and determination to succeed with us throughout life. But on the other hand, the weight of parental expectations can become unbearable if we feel we cannot satisfy them.
A colleague asked me for ideas today to help a client who was under a lot of pressure from her parents to succeed academically, but was just not very academically able. This is always going to be a difficult issue to resolve, and there is a danger that the young person will be left with a lasting sense of failure or inadequacy. They may find themselves on a course that they are not able succeed with, and this can only lead to a sense of barely being good enough or being an outright failure.
Most parents only want the best for their child. They worry that in this increasingly anxious world, only those who succeed academically will be able to get the jobs that will provide security and pay well enough to make a living or get a foot on the property ladder. The worried parent may see poor academic grades as sign that their child is going to struggle to be happy, and see university and the professions as the best way to ward off a life of poverty and unhappiness.
Of course, there are other parents who perhaps have less benign reasons for wanting their child to succeed. They may see their child’s achievements (or lack of them) as a reflection of their own worth; the parent may be seeking to boost their ego by achieving vicariously through their child; and may be so bound up in their child’s achievements that they cannot see that this may not be in the child’s best interests.
Parents are hugely influential on their teenagers, even if the teenagers at times would have us believe otherwise. If parents have spent that last ten years talking about university and the professions, the majority of young people will follow that route, even when there may be excellent apprenticeship opportunities that would suit them better. And when a young person just lacks the academic ability that is requited, there is danger that they will find themselves on an A-Level programme that they are ill-suited to. They may achieve grades that give them a very restricted choice of university courses (if they make it to the end of the course at all).
Alternatively, they may be brought up short by low GCSE grades, and find themselves drifting without a plan. If they are given the right support at this time, they could start a vocational course or apprenticeship which will give them every change of succeeding with a trade or skilled job. The parents, however, may not know about these alternatives and may be ill-equipped to help their child at this important time.
My first thought in this situation is that, as career professionals, we need to do more work with parents (as long as the young person is happy with this course of action). A session with the parents and young person together could help the parents to get a better understanding of their child’s strengths and challenges, and the wide range of post-sixteen options available. The presence of the Careers Adviser is likely to keep the atmosphere calm and everyone focused on the task of finding the best way forwards.
If this is not possible, then the Career Adviser will need to work with the young person to help them prepare to tackle this potentially difficult conversation with their parents. Rehearsing the conversation may help the young person think about what they need to say and keep calm if things get emotional. The young person will feel more prepared for this conversation if they have an alternative plan and an awareness of all their options.
If you are a young person in this situation yourself, you will need to explore what opportunities might suit your abilities and strengths. Perhaps you could train to be a carpenter, study computing or business studies at college, set up your own online business, travel the world as a flight attendant, become a circus performer, work for a charity, keep bees or become a product designer. The possibilities really are endless.
It is worth bearing in mind that there are “multiple intelligences“. If you are not academic, your abilities are different rather than inferior. You almost certainly have other talents. Find some good role models to inspire you – people who have succeeded in non-academic routes and gone on to make a great contribution to society.
It is also important to build resilience by developing the tools to challenge negative thought processes. For example, if you are prone to saying “I’m not good enough”, and then feeling sad, you can learn to recognise this thought pattern and replace it with a more balanced thought – “I am not so good at written work and I do much better with practical tasks. I am still a good person with lots to offer.” Of course, the thought has to be something believable, otherwise it won’t work.
Re framing failure as feedback can also bring about a change in attitude. When we fail, if we look on the event as feedback about where we are at a particular point in time, we can use it as a learning experience. Failing Maths GCSE can be interpreted as “I’m not ready for that yet,” rather than “I am awful at Maths (and always will be)”. If we cultivate a growth mindset, we can remind ourselves that our abilities are not fixed and may change over time as we practice our skills and have new experiences. There are many people who go on to become entrepreneurs, skilled professionals or craftspeople, and many more who go back to academic study later in life and find they can learn the subjects that they struggled with at school because they are just more ready.