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Killing them with kindness: The downside of too much praise

Heather Rudow December 2, 2011

(Photo:Flickr/popofatticus)

Writer and former therapist Lori Gottlieb wrote a piece for The Atlantic that is flippantly titled “How to Land Your Child in Therapy.” By constantly cheerleading and being a support system for their children, Gottlieb argues, parents ironically land their children in precisely the situation they are trying to avoid: depressed and on a therapist’s couch.

“We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids — yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused and anxious. Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned?”

And a recently published study in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion confirms that whether we’re 12 or 22, too much undeserved praise will only make us feel depressed.

The study involved experiments with four groups of students from the U.S and Hong Kong:

“In the first two experiments, one of the U.S. groups and the Hong Kong students took academic tests and were asked to rate and compare their own performances with other students at their schools. Following their assessments, all the participants completed another widely used questionnaire to assess symptoms of depression. In the third and fourth experiments, researchers evaluated the other two sets of U.S. undergraduates with feedback exercises that made high performers think their performance was low and low performers think their performance was high. Control groups participated in both and received their scores with no feedback.”

Throughout all the experiments, students who rated their own performance as much higher than it actually ended up being were significantly more likely to feel depressed. Those who received high or low scores and assessed them accurately did not feel depressed; the researchers believe that’s most likely due to the fact that the high performers could see their strengths through their scores and low performers acknowledged that they did poorly and could see what they needed to work on to improve their test scores in the future.

“These findings challenge the popular notion that self-enhancement and providing positive performance feedback to low performers is beneficial to emotional health,” said lead author Young-Hoon Kim. “Instead, our results underscore the emotional benefits of accurate self-assessments and performance feedback.”

Added co-author Chi-Yue Chiu, “Distress following excessive self-praise is likely to occur when a person’s inadequacy is exposed and because inaccurate self-assessments can prevent self-improvement.”

Source: The AtlanticAmerican Psychological Association

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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