How to prevent Olympic-size pressure from harming your kids
As children witnessed last year, athletes like Simone Biles are under tons of stress. Here’s how to keep the mental health of your own superstars from buckling under pressure.
After a botched vault at the Summer Olympics last year, Simone Biles dropped out of the games, citing mental health as an important factor. A few weeks earlier, tennis star Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the Wimbledon Championships for much-needed personal time. And while kids typically don’t bear a nation’s hopes on their shoulders, they can still feel immense pressure, with harmful impacts on their mental and physical health.
Ruby Yu, a mother of two in California, witnessed this firsthand. Several months ago, her seven-year-old was training for an elite gymnastics program when her behavior abruptly changed. “Penelope would get to the door to the gym and cry,” Yu says. One evening, her daughter retrieved a baby tooth from its keepsake book and placed it under her pillow with a note begging the tooth fairy for help because she was “really bad at gym.” Says Yu: “That was the moment when we realized something was very off.”
Pressure and its resulting stress can have pernicious effects on a child’s body and mind. When introduced before a child is developmentally ready, pressure-cooker environments such as overly academic school curricula or rigorous sports programs stifle kids’ natural creativity while reducing motivation and self-esteem. They also put them at risk for a host of issues—from anxiety and depression to insomnia and headaches. The drive to succeed can even disrupt relationships, leaving kids feeling disconnected from the world around them.
But when children learn to contend with pressure, they thrive. Moreover, studies show that mindfulness strategies not only relieve stress but also improve friendships and test scores.
Parents can help kids hit the reset button. Here are signs that your child is buckling under the strain – and strategies for dialing back the pressure.
How pressure works in kids
Most experts agree that children today feel much more pressure than previous generations. Part of that, according to clinical psychology professor Steve Smith, is due to something called the scarcity model, the idea that only the very best in society will have worthwhile opportunities.
“As a result, there’s a higher premium being put on performance—in the classroom and on the athletic field,” says Smith, who’s based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and works with athletes.
Some of that pressure comes from peers. “If all their friends are going to math camp or participating in piano competitions, it takes a ton of strength to resist those norms,” says Jim Taylor, a psychological consultant in Mill Valley, California, and the author of Raising Young Athletes.
But often, it's parents who are applying the pressure, fretting that every A-minus or missed goal will lead to an insecure future. “And kids internalize this,” Taylor says. “Intense, achievement-driven parents tend to create intense, achievement-driven kids.”
Not that pressure is always a bad thing. Without it, it can be hard for kids to get motivated. But too much pressure is toxic—especially if it persists and feels out of the child’s control.
According to educator and neurologist Judy Willis, when we’re under intense pressure, the amygdala—the brain’s stress response system—becomes hyperactive. “This blocks electrical signals from reaching the prefrontal cortex, which manages higher cognitive functions like reasoning and impulse control, and shunts them to the lower brain, which promotes the flight or fight response,” she says.
At the same time, stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol flood the body—increasing heart rate, prompting blood flow to the muscles, and delivering glucose to cells so that you’re equipped to respond to danger. In small doses, this response improves focus and our ability to store memories. But chronic pressure—and too much of it—wreaks havoc, particularly for a developing brain.
“When a bath of stress hormones washes over the brain, it swamps its control systems, keeping them from their normal function,” says Jessica Church, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “And if alarms are always going off everywhere, it becomes difficult to make good decisions.” Over time, the neural networks that favor survival become dominant, which means the brain responds to every stimulus as if it’s a threat.
Stumbling at a soccer game or flubbing the math final isn’t quite the same as being attacked by lions. But if kids ascribe outsized importance to those goals, falling short of them begins to feel unsafe.
“So the response to danger and the response to pressure is the same—your mind is trying to keep you safe,” Smith says. “And because kids are short on perspective, any little setback can translate to: ‘I am nothing; I have no value.’”
Signs of pressure overload
“Kids have a remarkable capacity to send messages to their parents,” Taylor says. So when pressure becomes unmanageable, they may show classic signs of anxiety, such as sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, and tearfulness. Nervous habits like nail biting and hair pulling are also common; younger kids may throw tantrums or behave disrespectfully toward parents, teachers, and coaches.
Subtler signs to watch out for—especially in high achievers—include changes in mood, facial expressions, and tone. A normally boisterous kid, for example, can become quiet and lethargic. Kids can also lose interest in activities and friendships they previously enjoyed; a frequent complaint is that an activity is no longer fun.
“A kid might get really upset about going to practices or refuse to participate in games,” Smith says. “Or they might be so used to experiencing a certain level of anxiety that they have difficulty relaxing or knowing how to handle downtime.”
How parents can help restore balance
The challenge with kids is that they lack the insight or experience adults have to recognize when something feels awry. That’s where parents and the other trusted adults in kids’ lives can step in.
Willis advises that parents help kids build a mindfulness toolkit they can use when they start feeling stressed. The first step is to teach them to recognize when the pressure is beginning to affect their behavior. For instance, have them ask themselves: “Am I becoming agitated or restless? Does my stomach hurt or my breathing change?” Once they’re able to identify the cues that signal their stress, they can deploy mindfulness interventions.
Regular practice of things like deep breathing, counting, or other mindfulness strategies enable kids to automatically reach for these aids when pressure is mounting, so set aside dedicated time every day to perfect these techniques. You could run through simple yoga poses with your kids in the morning or count to 10 after lunch before everyone careens off to the next activity.
For younger kids displaying signs of too much pressure, Willis suggests using a deck of emojis children can point to that correspond to their mood. “Connecting emojis to how they’re feeling is pretty powerful for kids who can't take a step back and say, ‘Oh, I’m feeling this,’” Willis says.
She also suggests reminding children to recheck their emotional state every 20 minutes or so throughout the day to nip potential tsunamis in the bud. “Sometimes if kids flip into a high stress state too quickly, it’ll be too late to connect with their stress management tool,” Willis says.
Sometimes, of course, a parent’s high expectations might be the cause of a child’s severe reaction to pressure. That’s why Smith says it’s important for adults to check in with themselves to understand their own motivations.
For instance: Do you hope your kids love learning, or that they hit a certain income level? Should they spend summers padding their resume, or choose one commitment that’s meaningful to them?
“Often we lose sight of the things we value to chase some external reward,” Smith says. “Do a gut check of who your child is and ask yourself what you hope they’ll gain from the experience.” Participating in sports builds confidence, social skills, and sportsmanship. But a child doesn’t need to be the next Serena Williams to achieve these benefits.
In fact, experts say that kids are motivated to succeed when they have the freedom to pursue their passions and explore different experiences. And if the pressure still becomes too much, parents should give them permission to walk away.
Ultimately, that’s the choice Yu and her daughter made. After the summer, Penelope scaled back on gymnastics and restarted activities like Chinese and violin that she had given up to focus on sports.
“It was a good experience in some ways, and I'm glad we got results that she was happy with. But we’re not doing that again,” Yu laughs.