Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
Just days ago, Simone Biles seemed a sure Tokyo Olympics gold medalist. She was at the top of her game, achieving one glorious, nearly impossible feat after another throughout the gymnastics field.
Now Biles has dropped out of the team and individual competitions. Widely known as the best gymnast in the world, Biles decided not to compete to focus, in her words, on her mental health.
While some question her mental toughness and ability to compete and perform at the highest levels when the stakes are high, she’s also being praised for caring for her mental health. I believe the lesson is the latter. She is a role model for our children and young adults facing high pressure situations – not just the Olympics.
Here’s how parents can educate themselves to provide more balance to their children and their families.
Be aware of your language
The pressure facing an elite athlete like Simone Biles raises an interesting question for parents about mental endurance. Many of us grew up being pressed toward our best performance with sideline chants like “never quit,” “it’s just mind over matter,” “shake it off” or “push through the pain.” And these become parental mantras out of the pool, off the track or field or court. It’s how we often encourage our kids in most any endeavor in life, whether it be sports, academics, standardized tests or work performance.
I did it to my own son, using some of that language as he swam competitively, thinking that I was supporting him and expressing my faith in his abilities. Many of us who study parenting argue that among the most important things we can teach our kids is resilience, that they can achieve difficult things in the face of pressure – sometimes enormous pressure.
But that’s not our entire job, as I have realized (apologies to my son). We wouldn’t send our kids to volleyball practice with a broken arm or expect them to dance with a broken foot. Though we want our kids to excel and achieve, we do not want them to do so at the expense of their mental and emotional well-being.
Make sure your kid likes that activity
Sometimes we press our kids to participate in activities they don’t like or that don’t match their interests or abilities. It’s critical that we check in with our children frequently about the activities they’re involved in.
Do they enjoy gymnastics or softball or debate? Or is there something else they’d rather be involved in? It’s important that our kids be engaged in something, but it’s counterproductive if they do not enjoy it.
It’s also important that we not try to relive our own childhood through our kids. If baseball or volleyball was your thing, that doesn’t mean it’s your child’s thing. Put your own ego on the shelf and see what your kid likes. This is important because if our kids are not enjoying the activities they are engaged in, if those activities do not match their personalities or interests, they are far less likely to excel.
Find your kid’s tipping point
Our tipping point – when our mental health requires attention and balance – is different for everyone. But we have a built-in method for identifying it, an internal check-in.
Many people ignore the tipping point altogether, never attending to or considering their emotional wellness, which is half of the equation for success. The other half, of course, lies in our physical or intellectual ability.
Identifying the tipping point, that balance between optimal performance and stress, is an important but underrated skill our kids need to learn.
Not long ago, I worked with a young man who was an amazing soccer player. However, because he failed to check in with his physical self, including his abilities and his limitations, he ran into some injuries that ended several seasons prematurely. Once he was physically healthy, his challenges became mental and emotional. After several sessions working with his pediatrician and me as his therapist, he is back on the field and excelling. He found that balance between stress and performance.
Get into the flow
We do not want our kids to be over-stressed, or they will almost certainly underperform or fail to perform at all. Yet some degree of stress is not only tolerable, but desirable, in order to do our best. It’s that stress that gets us excited and fired up, eager to compete or excel on everything from the pole vault to the SAT.
The problem arises when our kids become over-stressed. This takes place when we fail to cue them to check in with themselves, and ask how they are doing, physically and mentally. A periodic check-in is therefore imperative for your child’s success and balance.
Ideally, in high pressure situations, we want to help our kids find their “zone” or “flow” as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his seminal book on the matter.
Our kids need to be open to the possibility that they need work in some area or another to achieve their own flow. That can involve other activities, therapy or open discussion with you, their parents.
Don’t just do what I say
To find your child’s flow (or your own) requires practice, testing their tipping point over and over again. I recently worked with a very Type A student who expected only perfection from herself. As a result, she found herself overstressed, and virtually unable to perform academically. Only after several therapy sessions did she recognize that her push for perfection was impeding her ability to perform well. We spent hours identifying her tipping point, that balance between stress and maximum performance.
This is also something we need to model for them. They are more likely to care for their emotional health and balance it with performance if they see us do it.
Caring for our mental health doesn’t always mean giving up the gold medals. Biles has plenty of those to show for her talent, hard work and commitment to her team. But the competitions eventually fade into the background, and Biles’ most recent stand for her own mental health may be her most important and lasting work.
Biles can help our kids understand the importance of our mental health for our wellbeing and performance, and that of our kids.
Undoubtedly she made the right decisions in stepping away, recognizing that, even if she was in top physical condition, she was not in the flow emotionally. Hopefully by attending to that side of the wellness equation, she will be back in the gym and on the floor soon, again showing our kids how to maintain grace, and flow, under pressure.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Simone Biles’ first name in the headline.