How Praise and Labels Can Hurt Your Anxious Child

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good jobPraising your anxious child or labeling him as “my smart son” may be part of your daily routine, and with good reason. But how you dole out your praise can end up harming your child more than helping him or her. Even more harm can come from affixing labels to your child, even if those labels are seemingly positive ones, such as “smart girl” or “genius.”

The ‘Curse’ of Being a Genius

A real-life case in point, actually two of them, come from a mother and father who were both labeled as geniuses in early childhood. The mom scored more than 160 on an IQ test she was given in first grade while the dad was also pegged as a genius early on. Rather than propelling them to instant and guaranteed success, the mom writes in a “Dear Prudence” letter that both of them did pretty poorly in school and grew up to have fairly unsuccessful careers. Mom writes that her early childhood genius label brought on additional woes:

“This led to years of heightened expectations, profound failures, disappointed teachers and family, and ostracism (I was skipped two grades and did not fit in socially.) I eventually dropped out of high school during my freshman year,” she’s quoted by TheSpec.com. 

The Curse of Any Label

The same phenomenon can hold true for any label smacked on a child’s back. The general theory is that those who are labeled as a “problem child” will, indeed, be problematic and they often are.

“Negative labels can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Parenting magazine notes. And sometimes parents may not even realize they’re doing it. The obvious assaults can come from parents who blurt out to their children that “You’re always so mean,” or “Don’t be a cry baby.” But children may also overhear conversations during which one parent tells another adult something like, “Mary is my bold one; Belinda is my anxious one.”

Guess what? Belinda may start to think it’s her role to act afraid, upset or otherwise display anxiety because she heard her parent say that’s who she is. Instead of labeling a child in a way that sticks them with a potentially detrimental characteristic that may end up defining his or her entire life, addressing the child’s behavior is a more effective way to go.

Instead of “You’re always so mean,” parents can try, “Pulling the doll away from Belinda made her feel very sad. How can we work on not making people feel sad in the future?”

The Great Praise Experiment

While at Columbia University, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team of researchers dove into the praise phenomenon with a series of experiments conducted with 400 fifth-grade students. Researchers called individual students out from their New York classroom, gave each a nonverbal IQ test at which they were expected to excel for their age, and then offered two different types of praise.

One group was praised for their intelligence with praise that told them, “You must be smart at this.” The other group was praised for their efforts and told, “You must have worked really hard.” The two groups were then offered two choices for a second test, an easy one and a hard one. A New York magazine article notes 90 percent of the children praised for their efforts gave the green light to the harder test. Most of those praised for their intelligence went with the easy route.

Dweck’s theory is that children who are praised for their intelligence are given the idea that it’s of utmost importance to look smart. Opting for the easy test, in turn, made it much likely they’d keep up their “smart” appearance rather than risk making a mistake and looking “stupid.”

The next test, offered with no choice to both groups of students, was a tough one designed for students at a seventh grade level. All of the fifth-graders failed. The group of students who had been praised for their efforts, however, assumed they simply had tried hard enough on the test and kept at it, even with enthusiasm. Those praised for their intelligence, on the other hand, were miserable, largely believing the test proved they were not smart after all.

Efforts vs. Innate Abilities 

Dweck concluded that focusing on a child’s efforts gives them a variable they can control and thereby reinforces they are in control of their success. Focusing on innate abilities, such as intelligence, takes away the control, leading children to believe they are either “smart” or not. If they succeed, they must be smart. If they don’t, well, they must be stupid.

“It provides no good recipe for responding to a failure,” Dweck wrote in her research summary.

Another discovery Dweck made in subsequent interviews with the children was that children who were labeled as “smart” often ended up putting in less effort. They began to feel they could glide by on their natural intelligence to lead them to success, with thoughts that putting in effort was proof that their natural intelligence wasn’t good enough. This can definitely result in a big recipe for failure not only in school but later in life.

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

Dweck later furthered her exploration of the phenomenon in her book Mindset. The fixed mindset runs parallel to the idea of praising innate abilities. Those who are praised for innate abilities often come to believe that their intelligence, talent or other positive characteristics are fixed in place and those characteristics should automatically lead them to success. That, however, is not always the case.

The fixed mindset crew may also end up spending more time patting themselves on the back about how smart or talented they are instead of working on developing those characteristics to take them to higher heights.

Those with the growth mindset are instead aware that the qualities they have are more akin to a springboard, or launching point for success. Their given characteristics can help lead them to success but only if they put in the effort and dedication required to actually get there.

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