Parental Pressure

Young, Woman, Appearance, Street Fashion

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.

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Gratitude and Attachment

Anyone who has been working in the public sector over the last five years will be familiar with those difficult periods of adjusting to budget cuts, dealing with job losses and restructuring. At these times, our resilience is tested. Can we still find it in ourselves to come to work with a positive mindset, support our teams and colleagues, get on with business as usual and plan for the future, even though we don’t know if we will be part of that future?

To support myself in maintaining a positive frame of mind I decided to keep a gratitude diary. I have done this before, and it is surprisingly powerful. Cognitive behavioural therapists tell us that the triad of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations are intricately linked. If we change a thought, we also change our emotions and physical reactions.  Getting caught up in negative thoughts or having a good moaning session will produce corresponding negative emotions. Contrary to popular belief, punching a pillow will make us feel more angry. And introducing more positive thoughts will produce more positive emotions and physical sensations. That’s how a gratitude diary works.

This time, I thought I would try a work focused gratitude diary.  I focused on my job exactly as it is right now, not how it was a year ago or how it might be next year. There are many good things about my workplace, which are easily forgotten. So here goes:

  • Lovely colleagues who are passionate about what they do, and also really nice, funny people
  • Great people to manage; they are creative, autonomous and care about the quality of their work (and they are really lovely people)
  • A boss who asks for my opinion and listens
  • The chance to make a difference to people’s lives
  • Great leave and flexitime
  • Decent pay
  • Autonomy – no one micromanages me
  • The opportunity to go to CPD events or spend time researching ideas
  • A decent computer with two screens
  • The chance to get to know some talented and inspirational external trainers

When I started thinking about it, it was not that hard to come up with ten items. But a lot of these things I usually take for granted.  Herzburg would call many of these (particularly the leave, flexitime, computer, pay and colleagues) hygiene factors. By this he means, if they are not present, we focus on them and become demotivated. But when they are present, we soon take them for granted.  They don’t motivate us in a positive way or create job satisfaction.

Doing a daily gratitude diary can help to bring these hygiene factors back into our thoughts, help us to have more positive thoughts, with corresponding emotions and physical feelings, and break up mild depression or work blues. Yogis aim to cultivate “santosha” or contentment, and this is a practical way of doing so.

However, the Buddhist teachings warn us about the dangers of attachment. Attachment to the things we value is a cause of suffering, because then we fear loosing them. If I feel attached to my computer with two screens, and then find someone else using it, I might feel little bit annoyed. If I feel attached to my work colleagues, and they decide to move on, I will mourn their passing. If I feel attached to getting praise or recognition, I will suffer when I don’t get it. Attachment to status, money or power may cause someone to move away from roles in which they would have been more creatively fulfilled.

So, if gratitude is a good thing, and attachment is a bad thing, how do we square that? What is the difference? Gratitude is a warm, thankful feeling, an appreciation of things as they are in the present moment without any expectations that they will endure, whereas attachment is a more needy feeling, a feeling that we cannot be whole without something else to complete us. Gratitude can be a general sense if thankfulness and contentment, a sense of having plenty, while attachment is always for something specific and is rooted in the fear of not having enough. Attachment can trap us, whereas simple gratitude does not.

However, I wonder if spending too much time focusing on gratitude might lead us to stay too long in jobs that really we should just move on from. We could could too zen to make a move!  I suspect that is probably not likely to happen. Being in a positive and open frame of mind has been shown to improve the chances of a person coming across a “lucky break” and it is certainly easier to do a job interview when you feel positive about your current job. Loosening the bonds of attachment can help us find the courage for change.

So, to maintain wellbeing in work, develop the gratitude, but beware attachment!