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Christine Hassler

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What To Do With An Overachiever

Posted: 11/04/08 08:47 AM ET


Dear Christine,

My son, a college student, has been on the honor roll his entire life. Getting a B on a quiz or a paper totally freaks him out. While having a motivated kid is every parent's dream, I am worried that his relentless pursuit of straight A's is starting to interfere with his health. He's so stressed about grades and building up his resume that I'm concerned he's not enjoying his college experience. Am I worrying over nothing? What can I do to help him?

Worried Mother of an Overachiever, 52, Ann Arbor

Dear Worried About My Honor Student,

First of all, I commend you for being concerned about your son's health and experience more than about bragging rights as the parent of a straight-A son. While ambition and the desire to succeed are redeemable qualities, I think you have a valid reason for being concerned if that is your son's only focus. College really is about broadening your horizons in and out of the classroom.

As a first step, consider if you over validated his academic achievements in the past. When he was growing up, as a parent did you put too much emphasis on his academic success? Were you one of those parents who drove around with a "My Child is an Honor Student at Ann Arbor Elementary" bumper stickers on your mini-van? I ask because the parenting trend when Gen Y'ers was growing up was constant validation and praise of children. Parents gleamed with delight at their own child's success and wanted them to be the best - so much so that many became "helicopter parents." Gen Y'ers often report that the reason they put so much pressure on themselves is because they believe that is how to make their parents proud.

If this is even partially the case, have a conversation with your son admitting that perhaps you encouraged and rewarded the good grades and external achievement too much, but that grades are not all that matter in life. There is way too much pressure these days placed on kids to get top grades while building the great extra-curricular resume that will get them into the top colleges. Think back to activities he might have really enjoyed, but put on the backburner, and see if maybe he could reintroduce elements to balance out his college life.

And all overachievers are compensating for an area in life where they feel like they are underachieving - I know from experience. In middle school I started to get ostracized and teased quite a bit - there was even an "I hate Christine club." This made me extremely insecure and very socially awkward. To avoid the pain of what I was feeling, I became obsessive about getting good grades. Being a straight A student became part of my identity. What might your son be compensating for?

If you have the type of relationship with your son that you can speak honestly and openly with him, ask him why he is putting so much pressure on himself. Remind him that you are proud of him no matter what and begin validating him for his non-academic accomplishments. Warning: tread lightly and do a lot of listening, remember you are his mother, not his therapist.

For some expert advice I turned to Maria Pascucci, former college perfectionist and stressaholic, and author of the new book: Campus Calm University: The College Student's 10-Step Blueprint to Stop Stressing & Create a Happy, Purposeful Life. She says, "Consider telling your high-achieving son that while you're proud of his academic accomplishments, he is cheating himself if he only ties his self-worth to what he can place on his resume. Tell him why he's special in any way that cannot be measured by a letter grade. Believe me, he probably needs to hear it! Send him an e-mail that says something like this: "High school and college will help prepare you for your future, but you are in charge of your own destiny. Soak up all the knowledge you can and enjoy the ride through academia. When you make it out to the other side, it's your passion, persistence and commitment to lifelong learning that will ultimately help you build your happy and successful future, not a perfect resume or GPA."

While you can take these steps to help break his academically focused habit, know that changes wont happen overnight and unless he wants to change. Because of feelings of insecurity, failure, etcetera, this really may be his current coping mechanism. Do your best to be supportive and to create a dialogue, but don't force it. An intrusive critique could cause him to pull away, and leave you without the access to help in the future.

As a recovering over-achiever, I can honestly say that all of us at some point realize that trying to be the best is exhausting and does not lead to lasting fulfillment. And, hey, look at the bright side: you have an ambitious twenty-something, rather than one that is sitting on your couch waiting for a lighting bolt of inspiration to strike!

-Christine
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