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How Can You Help Children Thrive in a World Focused on Success?



Students who grow up in high‐achieving families or schools often deal with several challenges, above all the high and ongoing pressure to excel themselves. Growing up surrounded by parents who are financially well off and peers who are experiencing the same pressures to succeed can build a highly pressured environment for youth. The unrelenting emphasis on success fosters a highly stressed environment that engenders adjustment problems in the students, including higher rates of substance abuse, rule‐breaking, depression, and anxiety as compared to the average teen. Though there are some differences between the problems faced by girls and boys, all groups constantly face images of effortless perfection from their peers, both in real life and in social media. Though children growing up amid affluence can experience difficulties stemming from an emphasis on achievement and success, parents, can take actions to limit the negative effects of pressure on their children.
Luthar, S. S., & Kumar, N. L. (In press). How can you help children thrive in a world focused on
success? In T. McCullough & K. Whitaker (Eds.) Wealth of Wisdom: 50 Questions Wealthy
Families Ask and Answers from the World's Top Family Wealth Experts. New York: Wiley.
Pre-publication version;
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How can you help children thrive in a world focused on success?
Suniya S. Luthar and Nina L. Kumar
What are challenges of growing up in affluence?
Children in affluent families are often seen as “having it all”. However, students
who grow up in high-achieving families or schools, often deal with several challenges,
above all the high and ongoing pressure to excel themselves.
Growing up surrounded by parents who are financially well off, and peers who
are experiencing the same pressures to succeed, can build a highly pressured environment
for youth. From a very young age, these students face demands from their parents,
coaches, and teachers. As soon as they are old enough, many parents sign them up for the
most competitive schools, sports leagues, and arts classes. Sometimes, even before a
child is born, parents put their children on waiting lists for highly competitive preschools.
These children may be pressured to begin compiling and enhancing their resumes as early
as junior high school. The unrelenting emphasis on success fosters a highly stressed
environment that engenders adjustment problems in these students – including high rates
of substance abuse, rule-breaking, depression, and anxiety – when compared to the
average teen. Research at the local school and community levels, as well as studies of
large national samples in the US and Norway, all points to the challenges that success can
pose to children growing up in its midst.
What should you be on the lookout for?
A first sign to be mindful of is a child’s preoccupation with success and status,
and this can be reflected in many aspects of his or her everyday behaviors. The most
obvious sign is pronounced anxiety and stress about “falling short”, as in not getting the
highest grades in every class or being the best at everything. Students intensely focused
on achievement often try to attain perfection in too many activities at once to build up a
resume. While striving to succeed in various sports and activities can be commended,
this desire for perfection can quickly spiral out of control.
Excessive envy for peers is another sign that a child is feeling too much stress and
pressure. When children’s self-worth depends on the impressiveness of their
accomplishments, they can become highly envious of peers whom they see as doing
better than them academically, in perceived attractiveness, or in popularity at school.
This envy, in turn, is linked with depression, anxiety, and withdrawal from activities that
they used to enjoy.
Additionally, rule-breaking and substance use should be cautiously monitored.
Some children may feel that they need to cheat or steal to reach their goals (such as
getting exceptionally high grades at school) and gain acceptance and approval from peers
(with display of expensive clothing and accessories, for example). With regard to drug
and alcohol abuse, it is important for parents not only to be vigilant but also, importantly,
not to dismiss it as “something all kids do” as this perceived tolerance in parents is linked
with increasing risks for substance abuse among teens. Additionally, many students
report using substances as self-medication to relieve pressure, and stimulants, such as
Adderall and Ritalin, are abused both as study aids and recreationally.
These problems tend to emerge around seventh grade, when children are almost
thirteen, for a number of reasons. Around this age, children start to seek independence
from their parents; they are often left unsupervised, as their parents believe that they are
safe in “good neighborhoods and schools”. During this time, students also experience,
more than ever, a strong desire to be accepted by peer groups. This desire for acceptance
often involves rebellious behaviors, such as stealing and experimenting with alcohol and
drugs. Finally, around age thirteen, teens must also deal with the hormonal changes of
Are there different types of problems seen among girls as opposed to boys?
Boys and girls have been found to reflect slightly different patterns of problems,
and there are some variations in factors that tend to exacerbate their respective
difficulties. For example, among boys, high self-reported levels of substance abuse have
been significantly linked with being “liked most” by their classmates; in other words,
their peer group actively supports and reinforces their use of drugs and alcohol (more so
than among youth in less affluent settings). Girls with high levels of substance abuse are
similarly “liked most” by their peers, but substance use among girls has also been linked
with being “liked least”, indicating gender-based double standards in peers’ perceptions
of substance abuse. Double standards are also applied to “hooking up” with multiple
sexual partners; while boys are admired by peers for this, girls tend to be viewed
Girls also show additional problems with peers’ admiration of relational
aggression and physical attractiveness. In affluent school communities, girls who are
viewed by peers as being aggressive towards others are admired; “mean girls” are
generally socially dominant. These young women also receive high admiration scores
from peers if they are seen as attractive; it’s not surprising, therefore, that many young
women are excessively preoccupied with their physical attractiveness. Girls also face
high, often competing demands from peers as well as adults. While these girls are
expected to do just as well as boys in academics and sports, they are also expected to be
kind and caring; these young women feel pressured to be “exceptional” across multiple
areas, and are prone to envy of other girls whom they see as doing much better than they
Because of a fear of failure, some of these young women shy away from taking
chances in their lives. They might be wary of intimacy in relationships that is critical for
bringing them comfort, support, and affirmation of their true selves. This ultimately
results in an underlying sense of anxiety, self-criticism and conviction that no matter how
hard they try, they will never be successful enough, attractive enough, popular enough, or
admired enough. This mask of perfection often prevents these students from seeking the
help that they need.
Boys can be highly preoccupied with good looks, athletic prowess, being sexually
desired by many girls, and the “cool factor” of frequent substance abuse, as these are
associated with high peer status. Again, these preoccupations may lead to low capacity
for true intimacy with others, as well as overly high investment in power and status.
Though there are some differences between the problems faced by girls and boys,
all groups constantly face images of effortless perfection from their peers, both in real life
and in social media. These deceptive portrayals create impossible standards for upward
comparisons. Effectively, students are comparing themselves to the misleading narrative
presented by peers who seem to have the ideal life.
What can you do prevent problems?
Parents Must Care for Themselves First, if They are to Provide Good Care for
Their Children
As parents, the single most important thing you can do to prevent problems in
children is first to ensure that you are psychologically stable and healthy, as opposed to
being chronically stressed, over-extended, exhausted, and anxious. Being a “good
enough parent” across decades is a challenging task, and this is particularly true in highly
pressured environments. You cannot be effective first-responders to your child’s stress
and pressure unless you are psychologically “refueled”. Children can tell when you are
struggling, and they are affected by these struggles. Therefore, it is essential that you
deliberately prioritize taking care of yourself.
In high-income families, the nature of parents’ jobs may lead to high levels of
stress. Stakes tend to be high, with mistakes costly; work hours are long and demanding,
often requiring a great deal of time away from families. Large amounts of time away
from families, in turn, can leave a parent out of the family circle, exacerbating his or her
feelings of alienation. If you are in such a position, you need to be especially cognizant of
the time that you spend away from your family, and must make concerted, deliberate
efforts at connecting authentically with family members, maintaining open
communication with -- and among -- all of them. You must also acknowledge the need
for supportive, authentic relationships in your own lives, and deliberately prioritize the
development and maintenance of these close relationships.
Modeling Good Behaviors and Values
Children tend to model behaviors that they observe in their parents, particularly
those of the same gender; therefore, it’s important for you to be cognizant of the behavior
that you are modeling for their children and the values you exhibit. In affluent
communities, both young women and their mothers tend to hold themselves to
excessively high, unreasonable standards of perfectionism. Well-educated mothers are
expected to be, simultaneously, independent and ambitious, as professionally successful
as men and yet appealing to them, nurturing and sensitive to children’s emotions needs
while efficiently coordinating family schedules, and of course, beautiful and well put-
together. Mothers can struggle at least as much as their daughters in this quest for
perfectionism, and this becomes exhausting and depleting for their personal well-being.
Thus, mothers must be mindful of displaying this type of unachievable perfection for
their daughters.
In most families, fathers are primary breadwinners and work long hours; however,
the quality of children’s relationships with their fathers certainly does matter. Even
though children spend more time with mothers than with fathers on average, relationships
with fathers have their own unique effects. For example, boys in their late teens seem to
react particularly strongly to perceived depression in their fathers. Girls’ academic grades
are often linked with high levels of closeness to their fathers.
As parents, you need to be particularly mindful of over-emphasizing
achievements versus personal decency or integrity. Our research has shown that when
students were asked to rank order the top three values, of six, that their parents would
want for them, students who felt that their parents disproportionately prioritized
achievement dimensions were at significantly greater risk than others for various
adjustment difficulties. Contrastingly, the healthiest profiles were seen among students
who reported that both parents had middle to low emphasis on achievements relative to
integrity, compassion, or decency. Thus, you need to ensure that there is not an
overwhelming emphasis on extrinsic values at home, and you must be vigilant about
keeping your children firmly grounded in intrinsic values. Children need to be reminded
that there are things that must not be compromised in the pursuit of top-ranked colleges
or the most lucrative jobs, including kindness to others, doing for the greater good, and
maintaining close, mutually supportive personal relationships.
Fostering a Safe and Caring Environment
In parenting (as well as other activities, such as management), “bad is stronger
than good”, that is, disparaging words can have as much as three times more of an effect
than words of praise or affection. Thus, as parents, you should make every effort to
minimize critical, negative communications to your children, while increasing those that
are affectionate, affirming, and directly conveying to your children that they truly
“matter”. Also, it is important to remember that your disappointment or criticism can be
conveyed nonverbally; your children will be sensitive to your raised eyebrow or change
of tone when they come home with the report that they did not make the honor roll list or
the lead in the school play.
A key consideration is that, though all of us are naturally inclined to protect our
children from failure, our children need to be allowed to fail in life to learn. Although it
can be difficult to watch your child struggle, you need to be mindful of solving all your
child’s problems. Keeping in mind age-appropriate challenges (for example, a three-
year-old should not be expected to have the same task perseverance as an 11-year-old), it
is important to give children the chance to work at acquiring and practicing everyday life
and coping skills.
Be vigilant for signs of distress among your children and quickly seek
professional help if needed. In general, parents seek outside help only when children get
poor academic grades or are consistently disruptive. However, resilience is not an across-
the-board phenomenon – children under stress can do exceptionally well in some areas
while struggling silently with others – such that all-around academic and extracurricular
achievements can in fact coexist with high levels of depression and anxiety. Left
unattended, this high internalized unhappiness can snowball to dangerous levels over
Setting Firm Limits
Parents in affluent communities should be particularly mindful of how children
perceive their reactions to discovering the child’s use of drugs and alcohol. Low levels of
parental “containment” of substance abuse have shown to be related to high levels of self-
reported substance abuse among teens in the US. Firm and consistent limit setting on this
topic is vital. At the same time, it is important to recognize that some experimentation
with substances is developmentally normative for teens, so that “zero tolerance” parental
attitudes with overly harsh punishments can backfire, as teens will simply hide use while
still in high school and will gravitate towards substances that are more easily hidden but
are also more dangerous, such as ecstasy and cocaine. Once in college, high schoolers
from “zero tolerance households” may be more likely to engage in binge drinking. Thus,
giving some a little leeway by no means implies that you should be laissez-faire on this
topic; you must strive to maintain honest and open conversations with your children on
substance use along with clear, mutually agreed upon consequences for repeated or
egregious violations of these household rules and parameters.
Though children growing up amid affluence can experience difficulties stemming
from an emphasis on achievement and success, you, as parents, can take actions to limit
the negative effects of pressure on your children. First, ensure that your yourself are
physically and psychologically well; to facilitate this, work to foster authentic
relationships with others whom you can rely on. Second, model good behaviors and
deemphasize the importance of achievements by fostering a safe environment for failure.
Finally, set firm limits to deter excessive alcohol and drug use.
Further Questions for Consideration:
Who at your children’s schools can you work with in trying to decrease unhealthy
pressure on students?
In what ways do policies at your children’s schools help or hurt your efforts as a
parent to provide your children with a safe environment?
Where can you find help or support in facing these challenges of parenting amid
Additional Resources:
Mothering mothers: “Authentic Connections” fostered in the workplace
Youth in high-achieving schools: challenges to mental health and directions for
evidence-based interventions
Mothering mothers: A review
“I can, therefore I must”: Fragility in the upper-middle classes
Adolescents from upper middle class communities: Substance misuse and
addiction across early adulthood
Suniya S. Luthar is Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University,
Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and Founder and
Executive Director of Authentic Connections, a science-based, non-profit group
committed to maximizing individuals’ personal well-being and resilience in their
communities, schools, and work settings. Her research involves vulnerability and
resilience among various populations including youth in poverty, teens in upper-middle
class families, and parents (especially mothers) in high-achieving, stressful communities.
Luthar’ work is frequently cited in major news outlets in the US including the New York
Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, NPR, PBS, and CNN,
as well as overseas, in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Dr. Luthar is a Fellow of the
American Association for Psychological Science and is also Fellow of the American
Psychological Association’s (APA) Divisions 7 and 37.
Nina Kumar is a Product Manager at IBM Watson Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts
and Vice President of Operations at Authentic Connections, a science-based, non-profit
group committed to maximizing individuals’ personal well-being in their communities,
schools, and work settings. She graduated from Williams College with a BA in Computer
Science and Psychology, and a concentration with Honors in Cognitive Science.
... These influences also include social reactions to traditional hierarchical class systems, which have spawned anti-elitist attitudes that promote the need for individuals to demonstrate membership of an "everyman" class by being a "man of action" (Rigney, 1991; italics added here). In addition, meritocratic socio-political ideologies (e.g., "the American dream") that stress individual agency and responsibility have fostered notions that "exceptionally lofty goals are … well within reach" for all, striving toward lofty goals is highly valued, goals are obtained via hard work, and failure is temporary and overcome by working harder still (Luthar & Kumar, 2018). ...
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.