Expectations, perfectionism, and doing well at school

As parents, we can see the potential of school, and education, being cycle breakers. Offering our adolescents opportunities we wished we took when we were at school. We understand the point of all the hard work that goes into good grades, and we want our young adults to do as well as they can at school. We may hold the belief that good marks or a solid pass will give them options later. 

In the same way that the command, “Jump” no longer gets the automatic reply of “How high?” the expectations we hold around school achievement may not only not match our adolescents’ expectations; they may be barriers to their achievement. 

It sounds backward I know, but surely having high expectations will set them up to achieve well?  


And, maybe not. 

There are a few reasons for this:

First of all, they’re adolescents. Part of their biological programming is to push against what their parents expect. For some adolescents, an expectation of high grades may simply result in a deliberate flouting of those expectations to send a message that ‘they know best.’ 

Secondly, other adolescents may find the high bar daunting and have no clue how they’re going to get there, all the while knowing that they’re disappointing you. Ouch. That’s a tough place for anyone to be in, especially an adolescent who is also pretending not to care what you think. 

Finally, if you have an adolescent who is driven, high achievement is something they will have bought into at a young age. Potentially they are not only after excellence, they will be aiming for perfection. This drive may be playing havoc with their mental health as they push themselves beyond the limits of excellence. Watch out for this – it will show itself in late nights up studying, a lack of sleep, tears for no reason, and shallow breathing. 

They have their own reasons for achieving how they’re achieving. Adding your agenda to their thoughts may not be helping them. You may be making it harder for them.

As topsy-turvy as this may sound, do your own work around your adolescent’s schooling.

What can parents do?

Instead of nagging, threatening, ordering, or bribing them to good results, meet them where they’re at. 

Chat with them in a friendly way about how they think they’re going at school. Be interested and ask about the hard stuff and the bits they enjoy. Invest your together time talking about THEIR experience of school and learning. 

By meeting them where they are at, you will be able to work with them to guide them out of stuck – IF (and ONLY if) they need you to!  Ask them for their suggestions as to how you can be more supportive. What do they need from you in order to set themselves up for their best success?

This is not a time to give them a list of things you think they “should” be doing. And it’s definitely not an opportunity for you to judge them by their results. That will only make things harder for them as your attitude and expectations get in the way of their learning. 

Your learning is to step aside and let them get on with their learning. 

If this has you thinking, it may be worth continuing the discussion in a 1-1 coaching session. Book here to see if exploring where you and your adolescent could work together to make exams and school something they are proud of, is useful.