Positioning Your Teen For Success

Positioning Your Teen For Success

Psychology June 06, 2016 / By Sherri Fisher
Positioning Your Teen For Success

In our data-driven world, social comparison understandably leads to anxiety about your child’s achievement: How does my kid really measure up? How much more do I need to be doing to be sure that my kid is in the best possible position for success?








Positioning. It’s something we connect with marketing and product placement. If you are the parent of a teenager you may have been treating your child as a “product” in the quest for a top college. You might even be doing it this summer with internships, travel abroad and community service jewels to add to the marketing plan.

In our data-driven world, this understandably leads to anxiety about the value of your child’s achievement: How does my kid really measure up? Will she get into the best college? Will the money invested his education be worth it in the long run? How will this position her for future employment? How much more do I need to be doing to be sure that he is in the best possible position for success?

You may also say, often without seeing any conflict, “I just want my kid to be happy.”

One of the unpleasant accompaniments of this sort of achievement angst is social comparison. Social comparison occurs when you compare your own “data” to that of others. You can compare up, down, or laterally. Collecting such social evidence seems to provide proof that your positioning will (or may not) pay off.

Social comparison can be helpful as it gives you a frame of reference for what is both valuable and potentially within reach. Sometimes it generates relief and positive information that progress is being made. For example, when attending a school concert, art show or athletic event, parents compare their student to others and are often surprised and proud of what their progeny can produce.

At its worst, however, social comparison can lead to:    

--Overtaxing and overscheduling your kids in an effort to develop them into value-added college applicants

--Shaming students and therefore impeding their emotional and academic progress

--Teaching unfortunate messages about the expendability of others on one’s way to the top

--Preventing much-needed friendships among competing peer parents

--Undermining the efforts of teachers to be effective when parents consider achievement their child’s right.

Instead try these approaches:

Learn what engages your kid. An interest might be a sport, an instrument or a subject area that they love. But maybe it is social contact, humor, drama, earning and spending money, the great outdoors or novel problem-solving. Let your kid lead the way, as much as you may want to direct their efforts. Things that they do well can have practical applications.

Expect high schoolers to do their homework. Various homework research of U.S. 9th to 12th graders over 60 years shows percentile gains of between 10 to 30 points on standardized tests when students consistently do their work. Most teachers give credit for homework, too. Not doing homework can mean the difference between passing and failing, as well as learning or not.

Get help if you can’t be the one to do it.  Most teachers offer after school extra help and schools have students who offer community service hours in the form of free tutoring. Check with the student services department or your student’s guidance counselor. If they just say more effort is needed, you may need an outside expert who can identify the trees in your forest.

You’re all in this together. Here’s where you ask around in your parent network for help. Do they have insider info about teachers who are a good fit for challenging kids? Do they have a tutor who is magic with students? Even if you think you cannot afford the person, call anyway. You might get a referral or other helpful information for the time it takes to call.

Share your kid with other adults. In the study that followed a cohort of children for over 40 years, a number of protective factors may have influenced the children’s resilience. The most important were a close relationship with a caring adult other than parents, and involvement in organized, supervised community-based youth programs

Be honest with yourself. Were you always a perfectly behaved and motivated student? Are trying to prevent that in your kid? The bumps along your way have contributed to who you are, and may have even led you to people and work that you love. My favorite question to ask when things don’t go as planned is, “So what’s good about that?”

Take the long view.  By the time they reached middle age (the age most parents of high school students are themselves!) the majority of even high-risk teenagers in a 40-year longitudinal study were in stable marriages and jobs, were satisfied with their relationships with their spouses and children, and were responsible citizens in their community.

If you are feeling burned out, take a break. But don’t look at your neighbor packing for two weeks at the beach and feel sorry for yourself. You don’t need to visit Tuscany to have a great time. Try seven weekends away over a year. You’ll get your fourteen days in and feel like you’ve traveled a lot. Be a tourist close to home. Summer is a great time to try local travel.

Resist social comparison at home. Your kids are already doing this themselves! Help your kids to get along and value each other by not holding up one or the other as a paragon. Why can’t they be more like the other one? Because they are themselves. Recognize what’s good about that.


Dijkistra, P., Gibbons, F. X., Buunk, A. P. (2010) Social comparison theory. Chapter 11 in Maddux, J. E. & Tangney, J. P. (2010). Social Psychological Foundations of Clinical Psychology. New York: Guilford.

Gilbert, Cheung, Grantfield & Irons, (2003). Recall of threat and submissiveness in childhood: Development of a new scale and its relationship with depression, social comparison and shame. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 10(2), 108-115.

Werner, E.E. & Smith, R.S. (2001). Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience, and Recovery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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