Photo by the blowup on Unsplash
Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

Crushing Expectations

Question

Our 14-year-old son is obsessed with being the best and can be devastated by even small mistakes and setbacks which often lead him to quit.  We fear that if we can't help him with this now, it will just become worse as he gets older. Any ideas?

Answer

Young people face tremendous external pressures to be the best, to be all that they can be which often gets translated into having to be better than everyone else.  In the athletic world being number two means that you have failed.  Only if you win the Super Bowl can you hold your head high and consider yourself a success.  Otherwise you are a loser.

It’s easy for kids to translate this mentality into a “performance-based” view of self, which says that “I am only as good as my last performance” and if it’s not perfect then not only have I failed . . . but I AM a failure.  Unfortunately this view can become a set-up for a lifetime of disappointment, discouragement, and defeat.

As parents you can help him develop a “person-based” view of his value and worth.  Remind him that he is loved by God (Isaiah 43:4), loved by you and he has a variety of strengths, abilities and great potential.  Help him see how his being afraid of making mistakes can sometimes be his biggest mistake, and actually keep him from learning what he needs to learn in order to achieve his goals.

The best starting place is for you to just listen to him.  Not trying to correct him or fix it for him.  Take the advice in Proverbs to “seek understanding.”  Try to see it thru his eyes, hear with his ears, think with his mind, and feel with his heart.  The advice can come later.  And then take just a few minutes to pray with him and for him.

Then share how you have dealt with mistakes, setbacks and failure.  Share some of your own mistakes with him.  Even some of the embarrassing or costly ones.  Then share what you learned from them.  You can normalize the emotions of disappointment and discouragement by sharing how you managed them. 

Help him see how you’ve learned to respond to the opportunities rather than react to the setbacks, and how that’s helped you learn and grow and kept you from repeating the same mistake . . . and in the process become more successful.

Over time you can help him learn how to “reframe” a mistake or a failure as a potentially invaluable opportunity to learn something.  One of the best ways to learn how to get it right is to learn from the times when we get it wrong. 

As he learns the practical value of pursuing excellence rather than perfection, he’ll be be better able to relax, focus on the task at hand rather than the negative “what if’s” and in the process set himself up for more success. I’ve had many parents tell me that as they were consistent with modeling these simple steps, over even just 3 to 6  months, they began to see a meaningful difference in their child—a decrease in wanting to give up and an increase in their confidence and optimism . . . and a stronger and more trusting relationship.

Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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