In search of perfection


In pushing our daughters to achieve higher goals, are we driving them towards unhappiness, asks ALANA KIRK-GILLHAM

AS PARENTS, it is always a fine balance between guiding our children to reach their full potential, and pushing them over the edge of their capabilities. The term “helicopter” parent came into prominence a few years back to describe the “hovering” tendencies of some super-achieving mums over their child’s every move and step.

But in our desire to make sure our children – and in particular our daughters – strive to reach the ceilings we fought to be shattered, have we forced them into an unrealistic realm of perfection that is causing increasing numbers to suffer from depression, eating disorders and social dysfunction?

According to a plethora of books to hit the best-selling market in recent years, the answer is yes.

For several years, US academics have been warning of the detrimental impact overachieving is having on teenage girls. Too much focus on academic accomplishment and social success has led to a failure at other equally important female experiences, such as their psychological and emotional health, and, importantly, their sense of self-knowledge and self-expression.

In the Triple Bind, American academic Stephen Hinshaw believes that social expectations, cultural trends and conflicting messages might be putting teen girls at a higher risk of depression and other problems. And it seems the same problems are happening in Ireland.

MyMind, a counselling service based in Dublin, has noticed that about 70 per cent of the teenagers and young adults they see are girls.

Krystian Fikert, chief executive and founder of MyMind, has witnessed the increase in young girls seeking therapy. “Many are presenting problems relating to bulimia, anorexia, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and relationship issues.” So why are girls, who seemingly have more than ever before, so miserable?

In the best-selling book, The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons argues that modern upbringing is pressuring girls to embrace a polite, modest, selfless version of themselves that sharply curtails their power and potential. It also makes their expectations unobtainable.

It seems we are breeding a generation of pleasers, where politeness and good behaviour is drilled in to them to such an extent that their default mode is non-confrontational.

This is fine until they want to get a job, ask for a pay rise and get their point of view across. They are not being brought up to embrace failure and, as such, fear its risk and avoid situations that might result in not succeeding.

A top girls’ school in the UK sees this as such a problem it has introduced a Failure Week to teach students to embrace risk, build resilience and learn from their mistakes. In an effort to show the girls (and importantly, their parents) that it is not only perfectly acceptable, but normal, not to succeed all the time, Wimbledon High School is helping girls and their families address their academic and social pressures.

It is a concept openly admired by successful business leaders and innovators (Sir James Dyson made 5,126 prototypes of his famous vacuum cleaner that failed before he found success with the 5,127th and claims he learnt from every one). So why do we expect such perfection from our daughters?

MyMind’s Krystian Fikert explains, “Girls are generally under serious pressure to perform well academically, as that influences their future career. The way they look is another important factor. Stress related to competition regarding their physical aspect is pretty high. If the balance between different areas of their lives is unstable, that may lead to psychological problems.”

Deirdre McBride* has two daughters, one about to enter adulthood at 18, and the other about to begin her teenage years. “My eldest daughter is under huge pressure facing her Leaving Cert this year. The bar is set so high for them, it has become all-consuming, with regular tears about fears of not getting the right grades.

“It’s beyond most children’s capabilities, unless you give up your life to study 15 hours a day. But it’s all aspects of her life. The pressure to look good – and much of that comes from the boys as much as her friends – is immense. A night out requires nearly two days of preparation.”

Her daughter is a successful, pretty young woman, but feels nothing but the pressure. “She thinks she looks horrible and is hopeless at school. I tell her she can only do her best but she says she feels hopeless inside.”

But it seems the pressure to look, be and perform well starts much earlier. “I see it starting with my 12 year old. Already she has become very aware of herself, her figure, looking good and making sure she is wearing the ‘right’ uniform – Ugg boots, Converse, whatever. But it is so hard. I want the best for her and she would feel so out of it and awful, as if she wouldn’t be accepted if she doesn’t have these things.”

According to Simmons, we should be encouraging our daughters not to aim for “good” and certainly not “bad”, but to strive for “real”. Girls thrive on the need for connection, and fear abandonment, so from the age of about 12 they change from being their real selves to being what they feel is expected. As a result they end up performing to be the “Good Girl”.

They have grown so used to external rewards – pats on the back, good grades, compliments – they become more concerned with how they appear and should be, rather than how and who they actually are.

According to Simmons, girls are not developing in a vacuum. Parents seem increasingly unwilling to accept ordinary mistakes in their daughters, leaving a real mark on how our children handle criticism, and rather than seeing it as an opportunity to learn and improve, it is seen as failure and rejection.

According to psychologist Krystian Fikert, parents need to listen more, and understand when to back off. “The most important thing is to hear them, and be an advocate for your daughter, providing encouragement and space for her to express her feelings and thoughts, while setting reasonable boundaries. Ask open-ended questions to provide her with the opportunity to see an issue from different angles.”

There is another important aspect we can follow. “If you notice your daughter may be able to sort the problem out herself, do not give advice, but instead praise her for her effort.”

It seems if we want our daughters to be the strong, dynamic – and happy – women of tomorrow, we need to make sure they have the space and permission to be the real girls they are today.

* Not her real name

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