Wednesday 17 July 2019

Irish psychotherapist Stella O'Malley: Success isn't everything, kids need to learn from failure, too

Stella O'Malley
Stella O'Malley
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

It's always around this time of the year that I notice a striking increase in the numbers of pale-faced, harassed teenagers coming to me looking for counselling and support.

These teens can just about cope with the relentless pressure during the ordinary school year but then comes early spring, with the imminent arrival of the mocks and orals, and the month of June looming over them like a black, thunderous cloud, and suddenly the kids begin to break.

Some break silently without letting anyone know they feel shattered, while others break loudly and sometimes drag everyone with them. Anxiety is the word that is most commonly used; performance anxiety, social anxiety, general anxiety, anxiety attacks - the list goes on and on. Indeed it is during Leaving Cert year that many people first begin to take medication for anxiety. But anxiety can be contagious as once a person becomes anxious, then it becomes their primary goal to make you feel anxious so that they can believe that their own anxiety is justified. The result is a kind of hysteria that can sweep through schools at this time of the year as the students ratchet up the stress on themselves and everyone around them. Often the teachers also become infected with the pressure to perform and so they exacerbate the problems by piling on the work and pressure on to the students.

It's very difficult for parents to cut through the hysteria that surrounds the state exams in this country when their children's schoolmates, their teachers, their extended family and even the media collude with the lie that the Leaving Cert means everything. Deep down we know it's just not true; we know that the pictures of ecstatic children waving their phenomenal results in the air aren't an accurate predictor as to how these children will fare in life. We know that exam results don't correspond with life satisfaction or professional success. But we collude with this notion that it does matter because, bizarrely, many adults seem to view it as some sort of important initiation rite - almost like a ceremonial slaughter - that teenagers must experience before they leave school and go on to third level.

If all this pressure resulted in thriving children and optimum performance I would be all for it, but it doesn't. Instead I have children coming to me presenting with anxiety, OCD, self-harm and panic attacks. The pressure is too much and the fallout is too damaging. Although many of these teenagers initially present as sophisticated and confident, it soon becomes clear that their apparent self-confidence is a false persona, constructed as a direct result of the pressure to perform.

We need to stop celebrating extraordinary exam performance and, if we really wish to celebrate success, we should instead focus on true success. When we look at proper success stories such as Paddy Cosgrave or Dragon's Den star Eleanor McEvoy, we can see that these stories have a more interesting arc than 'I studied every spare moment, I memorised vast tracts of information and now, here I am jumping in the air with six million points'. Indeed as Eleanor McEvoy, the CEO of Budget Energy, pointed out: "According to the school system, I was the person least likely to succeed."

A secondary school near me is proud of their 100pc rate of progression to third level. But is this cause for celebration or concern? Should we be pleased that the only option for 18-year-olds today is to go to third level? Because, with approximately one in six students who start a college course likely to leave the course before the end of first year, clearly we need to give children more brain-space to consider their third-level choices. Maybe I'm biased about this because I didn't go to third level straight after school myself, and I am thankful that I didn't as I know it would have been a total disaster. Instead, I went to work, I became financially independent and I took some time to grow up. I eventually went to college when I was about 30 and I finally knew what I wanted to study.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor of psychology, has made it her life's work to study why some people with great potential go on to achieve great things while others, with equally great potential, tend to choke - often sometime between their late teens and their late twenties. Dweck has identified a person's mindset as the crucial element that determines professional success or failure. If a person has a 'fixed mindset', they believe their talent is fixed and so they spend their energy reinforcing this fixed opinion of their innate ability. These people can fly high when everything goes well for them but they usually crumble when they are faced with failure. Meanwhile, a person with a 'growth mindset' is more concerned with developing whatever innate talent they have and so they are ready and willing to heed the lessons that failure brings.

So if you truly want to help your child to succeed, then help them to learn from failure, give them enough support so that they can leave the school system with their ego intact and help them to find some appropriate goals that they are willing to work towards. That's enough for anyone.

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist and author

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