To Reduce Kids' Anxiety, Stop Telling Them How Great They Are

04/19/2016 12:19 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2017

This advice may be counterintuitive. The self-esteem movement indoctrinated us with the idea that complimenting kids -- essentially, telling them how great or "special" they are -- would strengthen their self-esteem. But far from benefiting them, this generation of young people shows many signs of suffering. Plus, it turns out that complimenting students on their talents and intelligence is a surefire way to undermine their achievement. There are better ways to praise kids to foster their well being and success.

Soaring Mental Health Problems

Mental health disorders among teens and young adults are skyrocketing. Psychologists believe that this is because young people today rely on external validation from teachers, parents, and coaches, making them feel less in control of their lives. Narcissism, for example, rose steadily between 1982 and 2007. Nearly 70 percent of college students are more narcissistic today than average students just 25 years earlier.

Anxiety and depression have also been rising for decades. Psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues found that 85% of young people today have higher anxiety and depression scoreson self-report questionnaires than their average counterparts in the 1950s. Put another way, in the past half century five to eight times as many children and teens meet criteria for clinically significant depression or anxiety disorders. These findings jibe with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)'s statistics indicating 25% of teens 13 to 18 are now diagnosed with anxiety disorders. By the time they get to college, students' mental health issues often become crises.

Pressure Deflates Passion

With the all-consuming drive to ensure students are as attractive as possible to college admissions committees, many parents do everything in their power to give kids an edge. They're especially eager to identify talents--and then to nurture them.

While understandable, this focus puts excessive pressure on kids. Hearing how talented or gifted they are compels students to rise to these expectations. The personal gratification and joy they initially get from activities gives way to apprehension about performance. Whether it's with academics, sports, or music, this phenomenon is common among the most stressed teens in my practice.

As a young girl, Joanne showed extraordinary promise as a harpist. Within a year, she was playing beautifully and performing at recitals. Her delighted teacher gave her increasingly difficult pieces that she was confident Joanne could master. Her parents, thinking ahead to college, encouraged her to take on additional musical challenges and commitments. But this well-intentioned "support" backfired. As her uneasiness about meeting these expectations rose, Joanne's anxiety snuffed out her passion and she lost interest in the harp.

As a high school junior, Melinda's stress level has never been higher. In therapy, she tells me that since she was in middle school, her father has been telling her that she will get into any college she wants to attend. For years, she has known the names of all the Ivies. And despite her lack of interest in these colleges, for years this parental "encouragement" has prompted a relentless, anxiety-provoking, and harmful drive for self-improvement.

What Actually Fosters Achievement

Telling kids how smart and talented they are has another downside. It reinforces what psychologist Carol S. Dweck and her colleagues call a fixed mind-set -- that is, seeing intelligence and success as determined by genes rather than effort. Because students with fixed mind-sets value looking smart over learning, when work becomes difficult and the risk of mistakes increases they avoid making an effort.

This is problematic because success depends far less on IQ and innate talent than on grit--the passion and perseverance to cultivate such gifts through hard work. The most successful people--whether artists, writers, poets, musicians, or mathematicians--aren't just born blessed, but rather devote their lives to nurturing and practicing their talents.

Kids who develop growth-mindsets, on the other hand, believe people can learn to master skills. Because they see failures as problems to be solved, they're more motivated to persevere when challenged.

What Parents Can Do

What all this research tells us is that parents should base praise not on how smart, special, or talented kids are -- and not even on their grades or other outcomes of performance -- but rather on their ongoing, day-by-day effort and commitment to their passions.

It's also wise to avoid predicting what they might ultimately achieve. No matter how caring and supportive parents mean to be, young people interpret such comments as expectations they have to meet if they want to make them happy and proud.

These strategies reduce anxiety and foster well-being by reinforcing that kids have control over their own lives. Allowing kids to envision their own goals makes it more likely they'll continue enjoying their talents. And after they leave home and graduate from whatever college they eventually attend, their sports, music, creativity, and other hobbies can hopefully enrich their entire lives and foster friendships with those who share their interests.