Avoid the Pressure Trap: 5 Tips to Raising Confident, Independent and Thoughtful Children

22 Jun

By Darlene Sweetland and Ron Stolberg

As we casually scrolled through social media posts one Sunday evening, we saw pictures of Michael holding an All Star Championship trophy, Lindsay holding flowers after opening night as the lead in her school play, Joe holding an academic scholarship award, and Monica volunteering at a homeless shelter. Then, we looked at each other and wondered if we were pushing our children enough.

Parents feel pressure from very early on to provide their children with every advantage to get ahead. From choosing the perfect pre-school to finding the best enrichment activities, parents often fear their child will be behind if they miss an opportunity for advancement. This is the pressure trap.

There is not enough time to do it all and parents have a difficult time choosing which activities are best. Most parents know when their kids’ schedules are too full, but there is a lot of pressure parents feel to make sure their children don’t miss out. In addition, when parents see the abundance of social media posts that show what it seems like “all of the other kids” are doing, it is a strong pull. The pressure trap can lead to kids who do not have enough unstructured or down time. As psychologists we see two consequences to this. First, we see kids who are overwhelmed and stressed out with all of their commitments. What begins as, “I just want my children to be happy” and “I want them to develop their own interests,” turns into “it is so difficult to get into college,” “they need to play on the competitive sports team” and “they need to add more extracurricular activities for their college application.”

The second pattern we see is with kids who do not know how to manage unstructured time. When adults structure their schedule, children have no need to make decisions about how to plan their day, solve a problem, manage their time and prioritize activities. When children have to figure out what to do with unstructured time they also learn to tolerate unexpected changes in their plans, which is an invaluable lesson. Therefore, they learn flexibility, problem-solving and tolerance. As psychologists, we have never worked with a young adult who struggled because he or she didn’t play enough sports, learn enough musical pieces or speak enough languages. However, we have worked with many who never learned how to tolerate unexpected challenges, develop the confidence to solve problems on their own or communicate with people they disagree with.

5 Tips to Avoid the Pressure Trap

1. Listen to Your Kids

If you are hearing your child say things like, “I’m tired,” “I don’t want to go” or “I’m burned out,” there is a chance they are overscheduled.

2. Provide Electronics Free Unstructured Time

Make sure there are at least two periods of time per week that your child is not in a scheduled activity. This time is free choice, without electronics. It can be done alone or with other kids. This may be difficult for some kids, but don’t give in. If they say they are bored, it means they need more practice.

3. Don’t Say “Yes” to Everything

Resist the pressure to enroll your child in everything. Prioritize your child’s favorite things and family commitments, then add only as free time allows.

4. Avoid the Impulsive “Yes”

Don’t make long-term scheduling commitments when talking with a group of other parents. All of the activities sound great. Go home, carefully look at a calendar and then make the decision.

5. Find Your Child’s Passion

There are a lot of choices out there. Focus on activities that your child is passionate about. When considering new activities, make sure it is a time in the year when your child still has down-time.


Darlene Sweetland, Ph.D, and Ron Stolberg, Ph.D, are child and family psychologists who are raising two children of their own. Their new book is Teaching Kids to Think: Raising Confident, Independent, and Thoughtful Children in an Age of Instant Gratification. For more information go to teachingkidstothink.com.

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