The Pushy Parent Trap

September 17th, 2010 by Alyssa Giacobbe

How teachers can deal with the problem of over-aggressive parents.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Richard Horowitz thought he was doing the right thing by encouraging his middle son, Benny, to try out for the high school football team. What kid wouldn’t want to be a football star? It was, in fact, a dream Horowitz himself once had. But Benny had other ideas of fun. “After summer football camp, he came to me and said he didn’t want to play football, but instead wanted to take drum lessons,” says Horowitz, who admits, “I was disappointed and frustrated. But I gave it some thought.”

Kids these days are under tremendous pressure to be the best at whatever they do, or to choose goals that reflect their parents’ desires, be it starting quarterback or first violin. But experts say too much pressure to succeed can lead to anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal. “A parent’s job is to give a child the freedom to explore a variety of activities, while also setting minimum standards for participation before they can quit and try something new,” says Horowitz, an author and New Jersey-based parenting coach. But more and more, parents can fail to recognize when their own needs—to succeed, be liked, or satisfy a dream—overshadow the needs, strengths, and desires of their child. Welcome to the age of the pushy parent.

As teachers, you’re in a particularly difficult position when it comes to dealing with pushy parents. On one hand, you want to be mindful of your students’ well being. (Signs that a kid might be stressed-out can be both verbal and non-verbal, and include acting out, irritability, and frequently putting his or her head down on the desk.) On the other, many parents can view less-than-positive opinions as out of line.

First, experts say, talk to the child. “The most important thing you can do as a teacher is listen,” says John Duffy, a Chicago-area clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book, The Available Parent. “Say to a student, ‘You seem overextended. Do you feel like you have too much to do?’ If they trust you, they’ll tell you.” Raise the issue at the next parent-teacher conference or, if it seems more problematic—if the child is consistently disruptive, or falling asleep in class, for example—call the parents and gently explain your concerns. “Give them the good news first,” says Duffy. “Johnny is a great kid, but it seems like he’s got an awful lot going on, so much so that he’s having a hard time focusing. Remove the accusation and replace it with observation.” Parents might not respond immediately or may even be dismissive, but, Duffy insists, they’ll hear you.

“Parents who are pushy are usually anxious about their child’s future,” says Kathy Seal, co-author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids. “Try to be soothing and reassuring, and help parents see that their kids are going to be all right no matter what.” You might also stress that what really counts is a child’s motivation, hard work, and persistence. “Praising a child for making an effort will go a long way,” says Seal. “Stressing her out by forcing her to take courses or activities she’s not ready for or really doesn’t want to do can squelch motivation.”

Duffy recalls a 12-year-old patient whose parents pushed her hard in a number of activities: advanced classes, violin, piano, dance, soccer. “So many of these activities would be squeezed into a day she had little time to sleep,” he says. “All of the pushing and excelling served a need of the parents, and actually led to a high degree of anxiety for the girl. She was as anxious a person as I’ve ever met, and for what? So her parents could say their daughter is an incredible achiever.” How to tell the difference between pushing and encouraging? Duffy suggests parents take a step back and focus on their child’s strengths. “Parents need to exercise self awareness and insight,” he says. “If you’re fulfilling your own needs, you’re probably pushing.” Teachers might gently remind parents that school’s not just about academic success and that every after-school minute needn’t be packed.

Of course, some kids might not want to admit feeling overwhelmed for fear of disappointing their parents. The best you can do is encourage open communication at home and in school. “Some kids might be too afraid to come forward,” says Horowitz. “I’m sure it was hard for my son, but the earlier you establish good, open communication, the easier it will be later on when he becomes a teenager.”

Eventually, Richard gave in to Benny. Today, he’s the drummer in a successful rock band called The Gaslight Anthem. “He’s touring the world,” says Horowitz. “And loving every minute of it.” Horowitz couldn't be prouder.