My Child Is Getting ‘A’s at School: Can Anything Be That Wrong?

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For a parent, a child’s academic achievement might seem like a simple and easy measure of their well-being. You might assume that a strong performance in academics is underpinned by stable mental health, self-confidence and self-esteem, and supportive relationships with friends.

However, in reality, academic performance is not a good indicator of psychological wellness. Some young people continue to receive high grades despite mental health issues like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or OCD. 

High achievement in academics can also be linked to perfectionism, a risk factor for eating disorders and other mental health conditions. In some cases, perfectionism in academics can be a clue that a young person is facing other emotional or psychological challenges.

This blog offers some more information about mental health problems among teens who receive high grades and the signs to look out for. 

What Is the Relationship Between Academic Performance and Mental Health?

Meta-studies show that there is, overall, a positive relationship between academic performance and mental health. This means that young people with good mental health are more likely to perform well academically, and vice-versa.

This can happen for several reasons. Teenagers and adolescents with good mental health tend to have better relationships with both friends and teachers. They’re also more likely to have strong emotional and social skills, helping them to manage their studies, cope with stress, and learn from others.

However, there are many situations where academic performance and good mental health don’t come together. Some young people develop ways to cope with psychological distress so that they can continue to do well in their studies – but that doesn’t mean that everything is okay. Mental health issues are very common among adolescents, including among high-achieving students. 

Some young people with mental health issues may put all their effort into achieving academically despite their emotional challenges, leaving little energy for other aspects of their lives or for addressing the problems they face. It’s also common for academic stress to contribute to, cause, or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Eating Disorders

Sometimes, high academic achievement is more closely linked to mental health problems. One of these links involves perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a character trait where someone tries to attain exceedingly high standards. It’s often accompanied by feelings of failure if these are not met and a tendency to self-criticise. Young people with perfectionist traits often have high standards in several aspects of their lives, such as academic work, social relationships, appearance, and vocational achievements.

Young people with perfectionist traits are more likely to achieve high grades academically. However, they may also be more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, particularly if they experience ‘perfectionist concerns’—perfectionist traits that focus on mistakes and negative evaluation of perceived imperfections. In the long run, perfectionist concerns can also harm a young person’s academic achievement, as worry and anxiety may make it harder to focus and study.

Importantly, perfectionism in academics is often a symptom of broader perfectionist traits. Perfectionism in general is a risk factor for mental health disorders, including eating disorders. In the development and maintenance of eating disorders, perfectionism interacts with other factors, such as low self-esteem and over-evaluation of shape and weight, to underpin a pattern of body dissatisfaction and the use of disordered eating behaviours to try and change their shape and weight to what they perceive as ‘ideal’.

With this in mind, it’s important for parents and teachers of young people with perfectionism in academics to pay attention to a young person’s mental well-being and behaviours. This can help identify any signs of disordered eating or other mental health conditions early so they can receive the support they need.

Measuring the Impact of Academic Stress

Academic learning is important for many young people to develop the knowledge and skills they need to pursue their interests, further education, and careers. It’s normal for young people, their families, and their schools to want them to do well.

But when these expectations or goals result in persistent stress for young people, it starts to harm their mental well-being. Symptoms of anxiety and depression that result from stress can affect a young person’s social development and put them at a greater risk of drug use, self-harm, and self-injury.

Academic stress can come from many places, including parents, schools, and wider society. It can help to remind young people that their value doesn’t depend on their grades and that doing well academically doesn’t make someone a better person. Parents and other figures should avoid pressuring young people and listen to their own expectations and goals.

What Are the Signs that a Young Person May Need Mental Health Support?

Young people of all backgrounds, gender identities, and personalities can develop mental health issues regardless of their school grades. It’s important not to make assumptions about a young person’s mental health on their academic performance or vocational achievements.

Instead, parents should be aware of emotional and behavioural changes that might show that a young person is facing challenges with their mental health. Parents are often among the first people to notice when a young person acts differently from usual and may sense that something is wrong. But sometimes it can be hard to understand exactly what a young person is feeling, and problems can be overlooked.

Some of the signs parents can look out for include:

  • Changes in sleeping patterns, such as finding it hard to sleep at night or wake up the next day
  • Changes in eating habits or appetite
  • Social withdrawal or spending less time with friends than usual
  • Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Trying to avoid or missing school
  • Increased irritability
  • Experiencing extreme highs and lows
  • Persistant tiredness or fatigue
  • Anxiety, excessive worry, or episodes of panic
  • Aggressive or confrontational behaviour towards others
  • Engaging in risky or impulsive behaviours

This list is not exhaustive, and young people can express mental health concerns in different ways. They may also try to hide symptoms from others around them. If you sense that something isn’t right, it’s important to act and offer support.

This might involve having an open conversation with your child about what they are experiencing. You should stay open-minded, listen, validate their feelings, and be non-judgmental. 

If these signs and symptoms persist or you think your child has a mental health disorder, you should seek professional support. You might want to discuss this with your child and support them to access treatment or speak with a mental health expert directly for advice.

The Wave Clinic: Private Mental Health Support for Young People

The Wave Clinic is a residential treatment space dedicated to young people. Our programs take a whole-person approach to mental health, providing exceptional clinical care while supporting young people to continue their education, develop life skills, and form plans for the future.

Our specialised programs are led and implemented by a team of experts with extensive experience in young people’s mental health support. We address the underlying causes of emotional and behavioural challenges, sensitively working through experiences of trauma and other co-occurring conditions to promote meaningful and lasting change.

We work with young people to rediscover their love of life and find their place in the world around them. From our centre in Malaysia, we offer exciting experiences, enriching adventures, and the chance to learn from other cultures. The Wave is a place of care, inspiration, and change.

If you’d like to find out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here to make a difference.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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