The recent college admissions scandal brought into the spotlight how the “achievement-at -all-cost” mindset is a harmful one for our kids. This mindset, which is imposed on young people in our culture, also has a significant impact in the world eating disorders. At first one might not see how these two phenomena are connected, but the mindset that drives us to reach external achievement no matter the cost contributes to the development and maintenance of an eating disorder. The lengths that people went to in order to ensure their child would go to the “right” University, with the best reputation, with the presumed intent of demonstrating externally how successful they are, was astonishing. With eating disorders, the external marker of success is maintaining the “ideal” appearance. And the unfortunate logic that goes into maintaining such an appearance is, ‘I have to look perfect no matter what I have to do. If it means engaging in restricting my food or other eating disorder behaviors, well that end justifies the means.’ This is a dangerous mindset, and one that if the adults in a young person’s life espouse, it is much more likely get transmitted to the child explicitly or implicitly.
Another way in which the college admissions scandal touches the world of eating disorders is that it was a stark demonstration of the excessive amount of pressure placed on teens in general. As humans we can only take so much pressure before our minds starts to find ways to alleviate that pressure. Anxiety is a well-known risk factor and often is at the root of eating disorders. The eating disorder can sometimes be seen as a mis-guided attempt at managing the underlying anxiety. With so much pressure on young people to succeed and achieve, that produces a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress. This is more likely to lead them to engage in behaviors such as eating disorders to alleviate that sense of anxiety. It is also likely to erode a young person’s sense of self-esteem, as they constantly look outwardly for markers indicating they are good enough, successful enough, smart enough etc. Low self-esteem is another common characteristic in individuals with eating disorder, and if the social pressures placed on young people contribute to a sense of low self-esteem, it will contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
So what can you as a parent or a concerned adult do to help reduce the pressure that young people feel?
Focus on process versus outcome. When it comes to academic achievement, this would mean focusing on the process of learning instead of on the outcome (the grade). Encourage young people for the effort they put into things versus the outcome those efforts.
Collaboration instead of competition: Young people have lots of venues in which they can experience a sense of competition, but not as many in which they can receive the benefits of collaboration. Try to create experiences for young people in which they see that collaboration is important. Experiences such as volunteering, working together as a group, or being part of a larger cause are all instances of collaboration.
Agricultural instead of industrial. The industrial model of child development holds that children are raw material, and if you send them to the right school and teach them the right skills you can shape them into the thing you want them to be: the lawyer, the doctor, etc. The agricultural view is that every child is a seed and if you give it water, sunshine and love (i.e. the basic physical and emotional needs of a child), they will naturally grow to be who they are meant to be. You can’t take a sunflower seed and grow it to become a rose. Similarly, can’t force a child who is meant to be an artist to be an investment banker. A person will be most happy and productive being who they are meant to be. They don’t have to be changed and shaped and molded into what we want them to be.
The college admissions scandal may have been shocking on the one hand, but nor surprising on the other, given the skewed perspective we have and the amount of pressure we place on young people. If we as adults influence them in this way we are doing them and ourselves a great disservice. As we reflect on this latest reminder of the detrimental mindset that we sometimes possess, let’s use this as an opportunity to espouse an alternative view for the wellbeing up the upcoming generation.
Dr. Matt Keck, MFT is the Founder and CEO of Cielo House Comprehensive Eating Disorder treatment. Through the Cielo House Adolescent Treatment Program (CHAT), he works directly with Teens and their families to set standards in life and in recovery that are based on the natural inclinations of each unique individual.