The Overachiever Trap
Taking Advantage of Opportunities
Trying to Earn Love
“Just Like Everyone Else”
Dependence on External Validation
Athletics and Music
“You Need to Work Extra Hard”
The Parents’ Role
Most parents want their children to have every opportunity to develop their capacities to the fullest extent possible. Parents especially want to give their children opportunities that were not available to them when they were children themselves: playing a musical instrument, going to sleep-away camp, travelling to Europe. Usually, parents want to share these experiences with their children because they build character, help to make them “well-rounded,” forge bonds that last a lifetime – or all of these.
Parents of children with limb differences are no different in wanting opportunities for their kids. But they often worry that their children’s differences will prevent them from taking advantage of the same experiences as other children. These parents often try extra-hard to make sure that their children take full advantage of opportunities to improve their innate capacities so that they are as bright and fulfilled as possible.
Fulfilling one’s potential is wonderful. Extra pressure upon a child to achieve because of parents’ fears is not.
All children have limitations. Some children prefer sports to music or math to writing. When “normal” children reveal a skill or deficit in a certain area, their experience is validated. A boy’s parents may tell a friend, “Oh, Johnny decided not to join the swim team because swimming isn’t his forte; he much prefers playing chess with his sister and his friends.” A parent of a child with an difference, however, may fear that the difference has shaped his preference. So instead of letting the child gravitate towards something he prefers and away from something he dislikes, the parents may unwittingly encourage him to “stick with it” – to prove to himself that he can.
Children with physical limitations subconsciously are aware of their physical limitation long before they ever “know” about it consciously. Children with disabilities often put pressure upon themselves to prove their self worth, to themselves, to their peers, and to their teachers. Without anyone instructing them to do so – in fact, without anyone particularly noticing – these children internalize a self-diminishing message about themselves from a very young age: “I have this body part that is different and people automatically think that I am unable to do things (e.g. ride a bicycle, tie my sneakers, dress myself) as well as they can. I’ll show them. I can do those things just as well.”
In the process of trying to prove that she is “equal” to other children, the child may actually strive to be “better” than them. She thinks to herself, “Sarah can make jewelry. She says I can’t do that. I’ll show her. I’ll do it better than she can. Then she’ll be impressed.” Ironically, where the child is only trying to be “normal,” she instead becomes an overachiever. To measure a child’s worth by her achievements encourages her to measure herself in those terms. The child hopes to prove that she is “normal” by overcoming her physical limitations. In fact, these children, from an early age, have developed incredible determination, strength, and willpower that have enabled them to independently master tasks that even “normal” children find challenging. Each achievement may provide some temporary gratification, but only as a stepping stone to the next, bigger achievement. The moment the child ceases to achieve, the child may again doubt her competence.
The child’s parents, who find themselves constantly defending their child’s capacities in the face of their peers’ questions, may also feel the need to prove their child’s worth to others. “My Betty, you know what she did? She was the first one in her kindergarten class to zip her jacket – all by herself!!” Unfortunately, while Betty’s parents are ecstatic that their daughter is able to independently dress herself, despite having only two fingers on her hand, they unwittingly reinforce feelings of inadequacy in their child. Long after the child has proved herself to her parents, she continues to have to prove her competence to herself.
Children rarely question our expectations; instead, they question their personal adequacy.Your Child’s Self-Esteem, Dorothy Corkille Briggs, p. 49
Children are very sensitive, intelligent beings who pick up a great deal of information about and from their surroundings. Children with physical differences often are especially attuned to reading subtle cues, such as whether anyone is looking at them or talking about them. In addition, they bear an unfortunate burden of knowing that they are not the perfect children that their parents dreamed of and prayed for (unless their parents tell them that they are perfect just the way they are). Not that their parents don’t love them. Just that if their parents could have had a “normal” child, of course they would have preferred that. So these children develop a barometer that measures how loved they feel.
For example, a child – let’s call her Alice – develops a pattern of behavior in which she tries to “be good” to ensure her parents’ love. She knows that she can’t change the circumstances of her birth or her difference, both of which have affected her parents profoundly. Instead, she decides to be the best child that she can be. She tries to please her parents however possible, by being helpful, cheery, or at least not causing them more difficulties, as her hand/arm condition has already created so much trouble. When her parents congratulate her on her good behavior, her helpfulness, or her constant positive attitude, they reinforce those behaviors. When Alice arrives at school, she instinctually transfers this behavior toward her preschool and kindergarten teachers. Again, the internal message that Alice carries is: “If I didn’t have this hand/arm thing, it would be so much less trouble for everyone. So I’ll try to hide it and not draw a lot of attention to it, and at the same time I’ll be really good and friendly so that people will like me.”
Once at school, a conflict arises. The child – this time let’s call him Billy – wants desperately to be accepted, so he hides his hand/arm difference to avoid derision. To be “just like everyone else,” Billy needs to participate in all of the activities in which his peers engage. But when he participates, some activities are difficult for him, like art projects that require the functional use of two hands. Wanting to appear normal, Billy tries extra hard to accomplish tasks independently, because asking for help draws unwanted attention to his hand and reinforces that he has limitations. Often he is successful, adopting a creative problem-solving approach.
When he is not successful, Billy tells himself not to cry or admit to failure, but to just try harder next time. He handles these struggles silently, as he has no peers who share the same frustrations and challenges. Over time and without any instruction, Billy, like many children with physical limitations, learns how to use his asymmetrical body in amazing ways to accomplish the most challenging of tasks.
Billy earns a lot of praise and recognition for pushing himself beyond his natural limitations – from his parents, other relatives and family, and his community. But the irony is that this only draws more attention to the difference. When a “normal” child excels at football, his community lauds him for his prowess as a wide receiver. When a boy with no hands does the same, the newspaper blasts the headline “Handless Boy – Football Wonder!” Contrary to dispelling the child’s feelings of inadequacy, this process instead exacerbates them. The child cannot think of himself in terms of his success alone, but instead in terms of his success despite his limitations.
Moreover, the child begins to depend upon external validation to give him a sense of self. When he achieves and succeeds, he receives great praise, which feels good. So he seeks more, investing a good deal of energy in impressing the people in his environment. But what is happening to the child inside? Does he feel special and talented when he’s not in the limelight?
The process typically follows these stages:
- The child wants to be “normal” by not having others notice her difference. This in part means drawing attention away from herself, so she can blend in with other children.
- The child also wants to be “normal” by overcoming any limitations imposed by her difference.
- To prove that she is not limited, the child feels pressured to overachieve.
- Once she has overachieved, she gains recognition for her successes. The recognition is generally in the form of, “Look at what Megan has achieved, despite missing four fingers on her left hand!”
I have noticed that the Overachiever Trap often manifests itself in the form of competitive athletics and music performance; a strange phenomenon, since these are two of the most physically challenging activities for anyone, with or without a hand/arm difference. Both of these extracurricular activities require hours of physically-demanding practice to achieve success. Parents, teachers, and coaches swell with pride when the child with one “normal” hand excels as a trumpet player or baseball pitcher. Mastering these skills provides definitive proof that the child suffers no ill effects from the difference – right? But have these children chosen sports and music as outlets for their creativity, or are they, indeed, trying to “prove” that they can do what their peers can do?
The Overachiever Trap is not solely the result of parents’ high expectations and childens’ feelings of inadequacy. Our culture places a large premium on overcoming obstacles, whether socioeconomic, racial, or physical. As a young child, a boy with a hand/arm difference can expect to be deluged with stories of the one-handed Tennis Wonder. If this boy is not naturally gifted in tennis, he is then more likely to feel demoralized by his limitations. If the boy does succeed, the newspapers will compare him to other one-handed sensations who have preceded him. When he applies for college, he will be rewarded by writing an essay on how he has overcome adversity. Are these comparisons helpful to the child, or do they remind him, yet again, that there is something that he needs to prove to others?
Parents may encourage their daughter to surmount any obstacle because they anticipate that she will be disadvantaged by her difference. They teach her that through perseverance and hard work, all things are possible.
On the one hand, most people would agree that perseverance and hard work are desirable traits in young people, and that parents who successfully instill these traits are praiseworthy.
On the other hand, there is a great danger that the child internalizes a detrimental message: “You need to work extra hard because the odds are stacked against you. It’s not your fault; nonetheless, if you want to succeed in life, you need to make things happen.” All children need to learn to draw boundaries. They eventually need to learn to ask themselves – not others – “How hard should I work for this? If I still can’t do it – is it okay to stop?”
The other downside to the “all things are possible if you work hard enough” message is that sometimes the costs of pushing oneself beyond reason are too great. We all know friends who were able to push themselves to pull an all-nighter to study for a college final exam and others who would try, but just couldn’t make it through the night. Did the latter folks not try hard enough? Did they care less? Or had they learned to respect the limits of their bodies?
How can parents avoid pushing their children into the overachiever trap? Shouldn’t parents encourage their children to express their natural talents? Isn’t it good for children who face differences to develop determination and willpower?
On the one hand, it is a parent’s responsibility to expose children to a wide variety of experiences and be their source of support in attempting even those activities that may appear to be challenging or difficult. Trying and succeeding at new and more challenging tasks builds children’s self-esteem.
On the other hand, development of the child’s sense of self-esteem needs to trump proving self-worth. Parents need to take the time to probe their children’s choices non-judgmentally. “Why do you want to take tennis lessons? Are you eager to play tennis? Are your friends taking tennis lessons? Do they talk about playing tennis when you get together with them? Do you feel excluded?”
Parents also need to teach their children that it is absolutely okay to ask for help. In fact, it is a sign of maturity to be able to ask for assistance. Nobody on earth can do everything, certainly not by themselves. When you teach your child to ask for help, you are teaching them to be like everyone else.
Religious paths can be quite helpful in emphasizing that the child is lovable simply because she has a soul and is an aspect of the divine. Helping the child to define herself apart from external measures of his worth is important for all children and especially important for children with limb differences.
©2022. Laura Faye Clubok, MS, OTR/L, On The Other Hand Therapy