Is My Teen Too Ambitious?
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Is My Teen Too Ambitious?

Parenting Expert Jan Faull, MEd, advises a mother on how to help her overachieving teenage son.

Q. "I have a high school senior son who wants to increase his class load to 10 through independent study courses; the normal course load for seniors is about six classes. I know he will be able to complete all of these courses, but I worry about the pressure he is putting on himself. His goal is to be valedictorian and he feels he must carry this number of courses (five of which are advanced placement or college level) in order to maintain his weighted GPA and number one class ranking.

Being valedictorian has been my son's dream since he was in elementary school, and he's worked so hard toward this goal that he will complete high school in three years. I've always encouraged him to slow down and enjoy life, but I don't feel I can prevent him from taking on these classes, because I believe he would resent me if he does not achieve his goal. How can I help him deal with the pressure of this increased class load?"

A. Most parents would envy your hard-driving, ambitious son, but you're right to be concerned about the amount of pressure he's putting on himself. It's a good idea to set up a meeting with the school counselor to discuss your son's schedule and ambitions. The school counselor can help your son find the best academic strategy for achieving his goals, and he can help your son deal with the mental and physical stress that will result from his aggressive schedule.

Ultimately, your son will need to learn to manage on his own the demands he makes of himself. But when the pressure builds you can offer him support by asking what you can do to help. You might massage his shoulders, fix his favorite foods, or encourage him to take a nap, work on a hobby, and get some exercise. There's no need to say, "I told you so."

There really isn't a lot you can do to deter your son's determination to excel, but do tell him you're proud he's such an excellent student. Even more important, tell him that if he doesn't become valedictorian, you'll love him just the same. He needs to know that his level of academic achievement isn't directly related to your love for him.

This is the line that every parent walks. All parents want their children to achieve and become competent in many ways. Parents encourage and expect their children to learn to read, complete assignments, memorize mathematical information, and spell accurately. But if their children have learning difficulties, parents don't withdraw their love.

When parents push their children too hard to achieve -- when they attach love, attention, and interest to achievement -- they find themselves with children who are either overachievers or underachievers. Overachieving children believe that if they accomplish more and more, they will finally receive the love that they crave. Underachieving children live with the sad belief that they'll never rise to the level their parents require or expect, so they give up.

When children know they're loved, most naturally work to reach their potential. Intelligent children who have learned how to succeed in academic settings make working toward excellence a choice. This is generally a healthy approach to learning and achieving. On the other hand, some children are driven to academic perfection out of some kind of compulsion, and it can be detrimental to the child's mental health. These compulsions can often be addressed through talk therapy with a mental health professional.

For many children, academic excellence is not even a possibility. It must be satisfying to raise a son with academic ambitions. If he's happiest when he's on the road to high achievement, then most likely his determination to excel is simply a part of who he is, and he'll probably transfer his academic skills over to the working world with success. But don't take this for granted. Senior year is a stressful year for most teenagers. It is the beginning of a child's transition into adulthood, combined with the stress of an uncertain future. But it should also be fun -- a unique opportunity to reflect on where they've been and where they want to go. Meet with the school counselor and your son together. It's important that your son have many resources to draw on during this important time.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.