3 Ways to Avoid the Comparison Trap
Multiple times each year, there is a buzz about parent-teacher conferences and the emotions that come up around them. This can be a stressful time of year for parents and children alike. It brings up questions like, “Is my child okay?” and stories about what it means to be above, below, or on par with whatever is “average.”
It is important that we keep in mind the purpose of parent-teacher conferences: to communicate where your child is currently functioning on any given subject in order to assess what they need to achieve the standard goals for their grade level. Ideally, this is a growth-based model that includes the parents to ensure optimal support for the child, thus providing them with the maximum potential for success. So…why all the anxiety?
My assumption would be that the anxiety experienced around the conferences is not actually related to the conferences themselves, but to our personal stories and beliefs about our inadequacies. Our culture is filled with pressures about how each one of us is “supposed” to be. The standards of our society demand that we look a certain way, engage in a certain way, and experience life in a certain way.
You should have a good job, but always be available for your family. You should be skinny, but not too skinny. You should be a good partner/parent/sibling/friend/etc. You should probably not have feelings, especially if you are a male…but if you do, you should definitely deal with them in private. And it doesn’t just stop with what you should do or be, but extends also to your family members. Your child should go to a certain school, have a certain number of friends, be able to spell a certain number of words!
Is this starting to sound like that nagging voice in the back of your head? When you walk into a parent-teacher conference, you are bringing all of this with you. You are carrying cultural baggage from every role model, commercial, or interaction that has somehow implied that you are inadequate. You may even be awaiting confirmation that the nagging voice has been right all along and you really aren’t good enough, and neither is your child!
Maybe this doesn’t resonate with you at all. Not feeling the stress of the first semester evaluations? Is there perhaps another place in your life where the experience I am describing does exist? I have yet to meet a single person who never experiences the stomach-dropping dread of “I’m not good enough,” or it’s siblings “I’m not enough” and “I’m too much.” Parent-teacher conferences are just one of the many ways that we can end up tangled in a story about our worthiness and capability. They are simply a topical entry point to a much larger challenge.
This discussion may also feel incongruent because your child is doing very well, and the teacher does not have much to report…perfect student, well behaved. Awesome! Right? With children who aren’t outwardly demonstrating some challenges, who are achieving while simultaneously mastering their emotions and demonstrating positive social skills, I would inquire about their internal state. That is a lot to have seemingly gotten under control for anyone, let alone a still-developing child. Are they excelling because they are simply experiencing ease in their current life and world, or are they putting pressure on themselves to do well at everything? These are two very different internal experiences, which require different levels of care and support.
At this point, you may be wondering, “How does this help me?” or “What now?” Here are 3 tips and tricks to work with your own beliefs, and to best support your child in the face of those beliefs.
1. Develop Awareness
Did you go into the parent-teacher conference awake and ready, but then find that you zoned out while the teacher was talking? Did you find yourself disagreeing with everything the teacher said? What about in your own experiences with evaluations—or any other situations that bring up self-doubt or self-worth? If you can bring awareness to how you react when “not good enough” is brewing, you can start to learn more about what triggers it, what it feels like in your body, and how to work with it.
2. Balance the Perception
When the story of “not good enough” has control, it is so easy to find evidence that it is true. You can list a hundred and five reasons why you are a lousy employee, parent, spouse, grocery shopper, whatever! Your brain is primed for self-insults. To balance the perception, you will need to also list the things that you are actually doing quite well. It may take extra effort to find the positives. Write down the list to get clear about the successes happening in your life—both big and small.
This tool is easily applied to your child, as well. Okay, so your child is struggling in math and is experiencing some difficulties in peer relationships, but what are they excelling at? What area have they improved the most in since school began? What are they really enjoying?
3. Reframe the Challenge
Your child had a hard time in math class last year, so this year they refuse to even pay attention in their math class. What a great way for them to learn to ask for support and develop self-esteem!
You get mad in every weekly staff meeting because your coworker is constantly interrupting you. What a great time to practice asserting yourself and setting a boundary!
Okay, okay, you get it. Every challenge can be seen as an opportunity for growth. The challenge is not your enemy, nor is it the only challenge you (or your child) will ever face. So, what do you need to do for yourself to not only get through it, but to benefit from it? What supports does your child need to succeed?