When Olympic gymnast Simone Biles walked away from the vault and eventually off the competition floor, the world collectively gasped in surprise.
What was going on? Was she injured?
Simone Biles would soon say she needed to take time away from gymnastics competition to address her mental health. Her “demons” were front and center, and with mental challenges in her way, continuing to compete could result in catastrophic physical injury to herself while dragging down her team’s chances of success.
Biles’ courageous decision to walk away from competition has put mental health conversations at the forefront. It’s also making parents really stop and think about how to help children and adolescents cope with the pressure of trying to be perfect, whether in the classroom or on the field.
Here are some topics to discuss with your children. Also, be sure to be aware of the signs of anxiety and depression, so that if your child is suffering, you can find ways to help.
Understanding Your Limits
Some children and adolescents may look at Biles having stepped away from competition as quitting. Others may view it as doing the right thing for herself and her teammates.
When talking to kids about what happened, first ask them what they think about the situation. Get a sense from them of whether they think it’s quitting, something admirable or something in between the two. Once you have a handle on their viewpoint, you can discuss that Biles is another example of a high-profile athlete who has reinforced the notion that “it’s okay to not be okay.” You can talk to children about the importance of mental health, and that how we are feeling mentally can affect what we can accomplish physically.
You can also talk to your children about how Simone Biles was self-aware of her limits and knew when to step aside. Then you can consider having a conversation about your own limits and your kids’ limits – and finding ways to determine when enough is enough.
You can use this as an opportunity to talk to kids about how winning isn’t everything. Sometimes success can be found by stepping away and taking care of yourself.
Discuss the Importance of Setting Goals
Parents can use the Olympics as an opportunity to talk to children about setting goals. Above all, goals should be specific, attainable and realistic for each individual child, not influenced by social media, friends, siblings or other outside sources. Parents can help children understand the need to create their own narrative and their own framework for success.
Then support and encourage children to attain their goals. As you do, applaud effort over results. Praise kids for how hard they worked and how you’re sure they did their best – regardless of whether they achieved perfection or fell short. When you give praise, be specific in your feedback. For example, saying, “I like how hard you tried on that complicated math problem, and how you broke it down step by step,” can be more meaningful than saying, “You got it right!”
Help kids look at effort as important to achieving their goals rather than what they think others think they should achieve. And remind kids that they should focus on being their best, not the best.
Making Mistakes is Okay
When Simone Biles makes a mistake in her gymnastics, her disappointment in herself is clearly evident. Seemingly, she puts a great deal of pressure on herself to be perfect, and that pressure was only reinforced by outsiders who expected nothing short of gold medals from our country’s gymnastics superstar.
Parents can use this as an opportunity to make sure their children know it’s OK to make mistakes, and that it’s even OK to fail. Teach children that there’s strength in failure. Remind them that they do activities because they’re fun and challenging and they want to learn.
When kids make mistakes, show empathy and validate their frustration and disappointment. Then, share an example of a time when you made a mistake or failed at something. Talk about how you handled it and what you learned from it. Convey the message that you’re not perfect – and that that’s OK.
Parents as Role Models
Whether they want to admit it or not, kids look up to their parents. And they closely observe how their parents react to situations.
Try to be a good model and set a good example. Have balance in your own life, whether that’s exercising, taking a deep breath or stepping away from a challenging situation to give yourself time to regroup.
If kids see their parents take care of mind, body and spirit, they will likely follow suit.
Know the Signs of a Problem
- As kids participate in sports, extracurricular activities and strive for perfection in the classroom, parents should be on the lookout for signs that the pressure may be too much. Anxiety and depression are mental health challenges that affect millions of children and, if not addressed, can lead to lifelong problems. Your child may be struggling if you notice:
- Negative self-talk, such as saying statements like “I’m horrible” or “I can’t do anything right” or “I always mess up.”
- Eating issues, such as staying away from food or overeating. Any eating pattern out of the norm can be cause for concern.
- Sleep disturbances, including difficulty falling asleep or sleeping longer than usual or staying up late to get things done. This can be a sign that kids are out of balance.
- Falling performance. Sometimes kids who are under tremendous pressure get so overwhelmed that their grades suffer or their athletic performance slips.
- Behavioral changes, such as being irritable or edgy. Some kids become rigid and insist that things be done a certain way.
- Poor decision-making.
- Procrastinating, because striving for perfection prevents them from starting or completing tasks.
Parents noticing these signs should start with having a conversation with their children and asking them what’s going on in their lives. If you are concerned about their well-being, reach out to a physician for guidance on next steps.