The Problem With a Growth Mindset
Updated: Jun 5, 2019
In general, a growth mindset is a great thing to have. Research has found lots of advantages to helping kids and teens develop a growth mindset, but here's the problem:
What is a Growth Mindset?
Based on work by renowned psychologist, Dr. Carol Dweck, the term "Growth Mindset" was coined to describe the belief that academic performance could improve based on effort. Students who believed that putting in extra time and work would help them earn better grades showed overall higher achievement and more resilience to setbacks.
The Era of Perfectionism and Stress to Be the Best
Much of the internet "literature" on Millenial parenting involves a generation coddled by helicopter parents who received participation trophies and were never allowed to fail. While there are clear examples to support these claims (see Operation Varsity Blues/college admissions scandal), in my practice I have seen several extremely high-achieving teens who struggle with failure because they've internalized the idea that they can do anything (ANYTHING!), just as long as they're willing to work really REALLY hard. When these kids run into life's inevitable bumps in the road, they spiral into self-blame and heartache, because they thought they were completely in control of all outcomes due to their hard work and dedication.
When strong effort to academics and athletics reaches a level of perfectionism, parents need to look out for unrealistic, unattainable goals. A perfect grade in AP Calculus and state track and field records are a couple examples I've heard recently. Intriguing past studies have shown that striving for nearly impossible goals may actually be related to increased risk for anxiety, depression, and substance use, as well as elevations in stress hormones.
How Can Parents and Psychologists Help?
Goals: Talk through goals with hard-working teens to determine what's realistic. Maybe an A in Calculus is do-able given a teen's previous math grades, but a perfect A+ is not.
Coping: Work on developing adaptive coping strategies, including reframing and reappraisal. When obstacles arise, teens will be better equipped to reappraise the situation, making it less stressful.
Prevention: Talk about substance use. It won't give teens any new ideas, I promise. But super-stressed and perfectionistic teens are at risk of using substances to help cope. Talk about exercise, meditation, and the occasional ice cream sundae and Netflix binges as alternatives. It also shows that you're open and willing to talk about substances in a non-judgmental way.
The Bottom Line
Don't get me wrong, generally instilling a growth mindset in kids is an excellent idea! As with any great therapeutic philosophy, there will always be nuances that surface when approaches are implemented on a grand scale. Growth mindset orientation needs to come with a caveat that some outcomes are uncontrollable. Life happens no matter how hard you work! Along with a growth mindset, let's just also teach these dedicated kids coping skills that they can employ when life goes off the rails.