Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman LICSW

School of Thought

A Vaccine for Childhood Anxiety: Effort-Based Praise

The Foosball Wizard--A Cautionary Tale

Posted Sep 07, 2014

Childhood Anxiety, Empowerment Parenting, Effort Based Praise, Learning Habit

Lessons from The Learning Habit

Note: The following case study is an excerpt from The Learning Habit by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, Rebecca Jackson, and Dr. Robert Pressman by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2014 by Good Parent, Inc.

 

 

The Foosball Wizard--A Cautionary Tale

In a therapy group of four 10 year old boys, one boy was the acknowledged “best” at foosball—Robby was the self-proclaimed “King of Foosball.”  On the days when it was Robby’s turn to pick the game the group would play, we observed Robby’s mother in the waiting room, straightening his clothes and saying, “You’re going to have so much fun today! You’re my little winner!” After those groups, he would brag to his mother about how good he was, and she would agree, saying, “You’re my best boy.  You are so good at everything!”

This particular day, a new boy joined the group. George was a shy child, who didn’t say much; when he did talk, he was extremely self-deprecating. His parents were also shy and very sweet; we could hear them in the waiting room saying, “No worries, George. Just be yourself and have some fun.”

An interesting thing happened. It was Robby’s day to pick the game; he, of course, chose foosball.  Unbeknownst to us, George had a foosball table in his basement and had been playing against his older brothers for years.  Robby got quite a shock, when George blocked all offensive shots and scored 10 of the 10 points that were earned.  After a second game with the same results, Robby completely retreated.  Suddenly, he couldn’t draw, couldn’t think of anything to say when we did mutual storytelling, and just stood there—clueless—when we played “Name-the-Emotion” charades. 

He shut down.

So much of his identity was tied into being “a winner,” that—when he lost--he doubted his ability in all other areas.  It was a classic example of what happens when a child is over-praised for achievement, and under-praised for effort.

Fast forward eight years

The cover story of September’s APA Monitor is, “College Students’ Mounting Stress.” Ben Locke, Ph.D., from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, stated, “Those who have worked in counseling centers for the last decade have been consistently saying something is wrong, things are getting worse with regard to college student mental health. With this year’s report, we’re now able to say, ‘Yes, you’re right.’”  They reported that the percentage of students who seriously considered attempting suicide was a walloping 30.3%. The rate of students who presented at college counseling centers for anxiety rose to almost 50% in 2013.

Do you remember the widely publicized story of Harvard student, Eldo Kim, who phoned in a bomb threat to avoid taking a final exam? According to students who knew Kim, he was an excellent student but terrified of not getting an “A.”

Fear of failure, of not being the best, of not winning the trophy or not getting the “A”—this is what our achievement driven society is perpetuating.

Educators interviewed for the book, The Learning Habit, reported that student anxiety, in elementary through high school, was at an all-time high. Stomach and headache complaints the night before school, calls from the nurse’s office during school, and meltdowns over homework are the primary symptoms cited by parents.

We now know that children who are praised for achievement develop emotional problems; they are afraid to try new things, afraid that they won’t be able to be “the best.” These kids rely on their parents to “rescue” them (help them with homework, make excuses for them) and, therefore, don’t develop resilience or self-confidence.

Developing Pro-Social Home Interventions 

The  Learning Habit, identified Traditional Parenting, which emphasizes achievement and focuses on punishment for undesired behavior, as detrimental to children’s emotional health, academic achievement, and social skills.

However, a style called Empowerment Parenting, uses effort-based praise to encourage children to persevere, try new things, and experiment with making choices, even in the face of “failure.” This style produces kids who get better grades, sleep better, use less media, have better social skills, do not quit, and develop grit.

Praise for effort: It’s almost magical in its effect. Think of it as a vaccine for anxiety.

 LEARN MORE: The Learning Habit is packed with hundreds of case studies and information from nearly 50,000 parents who participated in the groundbreaking research study. Order your copy today!

An interesting thing happened. It was Robby’s day to pick the game; he, of course, chose foosball.  Unbeknownst to us, George had a foosball table in his basement and had been playing against his older brothers for years.  Robby got quite a shock, when George blocked all offensive shots and scored 10 of the 10 points that were earned.  After a second game with the same results, Robby completely retreated.  Suddenly, he couldn’t draw, couldn’t think of anything to say when we did mutual storytelling, and just stood there—clueless—when we played “Name-the-Emotion” charades. 

He shut down.

So much of his identity was tied into being “a winner,” that—when he lost--he doubted his ability in all other areas.  It was a classic example of what happens when a child is over-praised for achievement, and under-praised for effort.

Fast forward eight or ten years

The cover story of September’s APA Monitor is, “College Students’ Mounting Stress.” Ben Locke, Ph.D., from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, stated, “Those who have worked in counseling centers for the last decade have been consistently saying something is wrong, things are getting worse with regard to college student mental health. With this year’s report, we’re now able to say, ‘Yes, you’re right.’”  They reported that the percentage of students who seriously considered attempting suicide was a walloping 30.3%. The rate of students who presented at college counseling centers for anxiety rose to almost 50% in 2013.

Do you remember the widely publicized story of Harvard student, Eldo Kim, who phoned in a bomb threat to avoid taking a final exam? According to students who knew Kim, he was an excellent student but terrified of not getting an “A.”

Fear of failure, of not being the best, of not winning the trophy or not getting the “A”—this is what our achievement driven society is perpetuating.

Educators we interviewed for our book, The Learning Habit, said that student anxiety, in elementary through high school, was at an all-time high. At the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology (NECPP), anxiety is now the #1 reason for referral, replacing ADHD. This week alone, nearly every new child patient was referred for anxiety: Stomach and headache complaints the night before school, calls from the nurse’s office during school, and meltdowns over homework are the primary symptoms cited by parents.

We now know that children who are praised for achievement develop emotional problems; they are afraid to try new things, afraid that they won’t be able to be “the best.” These kids rely on their parents to “rescue” them (help them with homework, make excuses for them) and, therefore, don’t develop resilience or self-confidence.

The research upon which the book was based, the Learning Habit Study, identified Traditional Parenting, which emphasizes achievement and focuses on punishment for undesired behavior, as detrimental to children’s emotional health, academic achievement, and social skills.

However, a style called Empowerment Parenting, uses effort-based praise to encourage children to persevere, try new things, and experiment with making choices, even in the face of “failure.” This style produces kids who get better grades, sleep better, use less media, have better social skills, do not quit, and develop grit.

Praise for effort: It’s almost magical in its effect. Think of it as a vaccine for anxiety.

More Posts