How to Prevent Impostor Syndrome in Your Child
The culture of perfectionism makes our kids feel that they can never measure up.
Posted Oct 23, 2019 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
Each year, more kids tell me how stressed they are at school because they can never be good enough. By the time they are teens, many of them are describing symptoms of the impostor phenomenon, the secret suffering of 25-30% of high performers. Parents who have been successful yet have struggled with the pain of feeling like an impostor themselves worry they will pass this to their own kids. How can parents prevent impostor syndrome in their kids?
First described by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance in the 1980s, the impostor phenomenon (IP) is a cluster of symptoms that cause profound suffering. People with IP are high performers who are objectively successful but can’t feel it. They believe they are frauds and will be found out. They attribute their success to luck and not to their own talents. Even when praised, they discount that praise, believing they don’t deserve it. “If only people really knew,” they say to themselves, “they’d see I’m not smart after all.”
How parents set their kids up for impostor phenomenon
Parents have a huge impact on the formation of impostor phenomenon in their kids. When Dr. Clance met with adult sufferers, the messages their parents had sent them in childhood were the inciting factor. There are two types of messages parents send that create feelings of being a fraud in a child.
The first message is simply criticism. In this type of IP-causing family, the children hear primarily criticism. When a child hears consistent criticism for that which is not perfect, they learn that nothing else matters. What parents notice about the child is any deviation from an unreachable standard. Or as one woman once told me, “I was raised that you’re not good until you’re good.”
Dr. Suzanne Lawry, a psychologist at Georgia State University, pointed out that perfectionism is associated with the impostor phenomenon but is not the same thing. Many perfectionists end up as low performers, choosing less challenging jobs that they can do perfectly. In contrast, people with impostor phenomenon are perfectionists with proven success yet still feel like frauds. "We know that ambivalent messaging about what is success sets people up to have IP,” Dr. Lawry explains. “Critical environments, competitive environments set it up.”
But there is a gentler method by which families create impostor feelings in their children: general praise without specifics. Dr. Clance noticed this early on in her work. When parents say superlative things about their child but don’t focus on specifics, they create impossible standards. “You are the smartest kid in the world! You are the best kid in your school at math! You are the most talented artist ever!” Parents who praise this way send the message that they expect the world of a child, and their kids feel the pressure.
When I spoke with Dr. Clance she told me this: “The parent says, 'Oh, you can do anything in the world you want to,' which isn't true. I mean, they can do many things. But there are some things they have trouble with… [they] can’t always do it all. And then they feel shame.” She shared stories of kids who hid their good, but less than perfect, grades from their parents because they didn’t want to disappoint them. They thought to themselves, “My parents think I can do all this, but I can’t. And I don't want them to know.”
The behavior of hiding failures, or even successes that aren’t good enough, starts to create a feeling of inauthenticity in the child. When a child always shows only their best and hides everything else, that child will start to feel like a fraud.
What can parents do to prevent impostor syndrome in their child?
When I asked Dr. Clance what she would have parents do instead, she said, “I think it is so important to look at what [kids are] doing well, and to listen to what they think they're doing well. And then to listen to what’s hard for them, too. You know, begin to help them get a more realistic picture of what they can and can't do, with encouragement. But not saying You can do anything you want. I would have them have the child begin to think about: What do I do well? What do I have trouble with? What can I do to improve something that I have trouble with? Or at least get it good enough.”
The antidote to perfection is a standard of good enough, and that’s a tough sell for a lot of us. Our anxiety often makes us feel that mistakes come with risk or make us less. But parents who teach a child to see mistakes as works in progress, instead of as final outcomes, soothe that anxiety. “To help children recognize one failure is not the problem; you can most of the time make up for that,” says Dr. Clance. When a person understands their own mistakes as evidence that they are trying and learning, it’s hard to convince them that they are some kind of impostor.
In addition to facing mistakes head-on, praising specifics is also important. “I notice you cleared your plate after dinner without me asking. That was great!” Praising effort not outcome is a great way to build a child’s confidence. For example, “I notice you put a lot of time and effort into that drawing. I see you used a lot of different colors. Will you tell me about it, please?”
Dr. Clance uses the word listen regularly. “I think it's so important to take a look. Just take a little time, when you're really rushed, to get wisdom and listen to kids talking.” Listening, really listening, is how we make children feel seen and heard. That’s the opposite of how people with IP feel, who are hiding behind a mask.
So what’s the bottom line? What prevents a child from developing impostor feelings? Dr. Clance believes, “Overall it’s the feeling the child gets that I’m loved and cared for that makes the difference.”
Clance, Pauline Rose. (1985) The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success. Peachtree Pub Ltd.