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High achievers might be setting themselves up for burnout

| Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2007

Robert Shogry, 18, of Upper St. Clair, has plenty to impress potential colleges. He gets good grades, has a lead in the high school musical, plays the piano, and is senior class president and varsity golf team captain.

Yet, even though so many of his classmates at Upper St. Clair High School also are very high achievers, Shogry says he won't let the competition force him into obsessing about college and future success, and becoming an unhealthy overachiever.

"I think we all have different goals," says Shogry, who is hoping to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "I want to go to a good school, but I have better things in mind than just trying to get into a good college. There's more to life."

Most parents want their children to be the best they can be, and a high-achieving son or daughter is a source of pride and joy. Yet, with rampant societal and parental pressure to achieve, many talented and hard-working children can fall into the overachiever mentality: believing that they must be the very best at everything, and setting themselves up for burnout and emotional distress.

The line between high achievers and overachievers, though, can be a fine one indeed -- and if it is crossed, the results can be both good and bad, says Greensburg child psychologist Dr. John Carosso.

"Overachievement can be seen as a good thing," says Carosso, who often sees underachieving children at the opposite extreme.

"We want overachievers," he says. "We want kids who are focused and dedicated, and know what they want in life and are going after it. ... We should promote them working to their full potential."

However, Carosso says, children who push themselves too hard -- because their parents, society or both are pushing them -- set themselves up for chronic stress, depression and anxiety. Young people with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation, often are manifesting overachieving tendencies, he says.

Alexandra Robbins, author of the best-selling "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids" (Hyperion, $24.95) says cultural pressure to be the best in everything -- captain of this, president of that, and valedictorian, for example -- is rampant and harmful, and has gotten worse in recent generations.

"Today there is a very intensive overachiever culture that is putting overwhelming amounts of pressure and stress on students and parents, too," she says. "It's changed the educational atmosphere from a place to love learning to a race to get ahead.

"The American society's general definition of success is ridiculous and unfair," says Robbins, of Washington, D.C.

One of the reasons for the increasing pressure is that more students are applying to colleges, which has caused fierce competition for slots at schools that have not expanded much. Even schools that used to be considered fallbacks for students aiming for the Ivy League, such as large state institutions, are harder to get into than they were 20 years ago. For teenagers who are looking toward their future as successful adults, the college issue carries tremendous pressure, Robbins says.

Being among the highest achievers is no guarantee of satisfaction, and overachievers usually never feel satisfied, she says. Even the kids most peers look up to -- the ones who seem perfect -- often feel terribly insecure about themselves, and feel they aren't good enough, Robbins says.

"The most perfect students imaginable ... look perfect on paper, but are a wreck."

Dr. Amanda Pelphrey, a clinical psychologist at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Oakland, says parents can groom their children to do their best and develop their talents, but intervene and help if it looks as though their child is becoming too stressed and unhealthy.

Parents can start at a young age by teaching children about balancing work with play, a lifelong concept that will serve them well, she says.

"The more that our culture has been supportive of this overly high achievement, we've forgotten about the importance of play and leisure activities, which are important for the health and well-being of children."

As children grow up, parents must communicate unconditional love for their children, regardless of particular achievements, and keep reasonable expectations. Parents should focus on the effort and talent of the child, rather than specific outcomes, such as getting an "A" or winning the football game, Pelphrey says.

Obvious signs will appear if overachievement has gone too far, Carosso says. Children might appear tense, anxious and worried, and they might not smile very easily. Parents who observe these signs can encourage their children to step back, relax more and re-evaluate their lives, he says.

Carosso says that a happy, high-achieving child is "excelling in all aspects of life, but doing it in a healthy way."


Shift down into the right gear

In her book "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids," author Alexandra Robbins offers advice for parents and students on how to nurture healthy attitudes and practices regarding achievement.

What parents can do:

• Limit young children's activities. Unstructured playtime can be as valuable as endless dance and piano lessons, and soccer practice. Aim to enroll children in no more than two after-school activities per season.

• Get a life. If parents focus on their own interests and friendships, they will be less likely to overinvest themselves in their children's achievements. This lessens parental pressure.

• Schedule family time. This could be eating meals together, taking vacations, or other activities. It's a way for families to open lines of communication and reinforce a mutual support network.

• Place character above performance. Some students believe that their parents would rather have them cheat on a test than get a bad grade.

What students and parents can do:

• Stop the guilt. Frantic attempts to pile on the opportunities can backfire by causing burnout, anxiety or worse. Take care not to feel guilty about not getting caught up in the competition.

• Adjust the superstar mentality. Too often, overachievers exhaust themselves because they or their parents believe they need to reach the pinnacle of every activity to which they commit.

• Carve an individual path. Traditional, four-year colleges -- particularly the top-ranked ones -- aren't for every student. Some careers require different types of education and preparation. Don't get hung up on a school's image; the name doesn't tell the whole story.

What students can do:

• Pare down activities. Participating in too many time-consuming activities just to add lines to a resume isn't worth the stress. It both looks and feels better to commit to one or two passions.

• Try an "unrewarding" activity. If students get involved in something they like but aren't good at, they can learn to enjoy something for the sake of enjoyment rather than potential reward or recognition.

• Reclaim summer. Take advantage of chances to unwind, take vacations or get a nonacademic job.

• Accept that college admissions aren't personal. Tough competition works against a student, and a rejection does not reflect a student's character or future.

Source: "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids" by Alexandra Robbins (Hyperion, $24.95)


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