My daughter is stressed over the Leaving Cert, and her dad is putting huge pressure on her

Tell me about it: He is forcing her to do grinds and constantly calling to check she is studying

PROBLEM: My daughter is due to sit her Leaving Cert soon. She has always been an anxious child, but I have never known her to be this distressed and withdrawn.

She has been studious throughout her school years and this has been reflected in the results from almost every exam she has undertaken. I am certain that if she is able to sustain this, she will get into her chosen course in university. I have always encouraged her to make her own choices and to try her best to achieve her goals. But I have also tried to instil the belief that life will go on even if you don’t make the grade every time.

Myself and her father separated very soon after she was born. During our very brief and difficult relationship he was extraordinarily ambitious and was always striving to do better. So much better, that none of his many subsequent relationships lasted more than six months. My daughter is an only child and I know that since she was born, she has been his number one priority. She has had a tremendous impact on him and in many ways keeps him grounded. Up until recently, my relationship with him has been amicable and we have worked together to do the very best for her.

However, since Christmas I have noticed that he has become obsessed with her school work. Even when he is abroad, he rings or Skypes her several times a day to ensure she is studying. He has even arranged for her to have grinds in each of her subjects. He believes this will increase her chances of achieving better grades and get into a different university course, one he thinks is a better fit and will eventually enhance her earning power. He has become so intense that I know he has instructed his PA to check that our daughter has attended her grinds classes.

He is a self-righteous person, who I know regularly points out homeless people and drug addicts to our daughter and tells her this is what happens when you lose direction and don’t try hard enough. I believe some pressure can be helpful.

But I think this man’s own anxieties could impair our daughter’s mental health and restrict her life choices.

ADVICE: You have two avenues here and perhaps both should be taken: you can influence your daughter and you can influence her father. Perfectionism is a trait that is growing in our society and it is leaving people dissatisfied and anxious. (In psychology, it is classed as a personality trait characterised by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.)

It seems your ex has this trait in abundance and he sees it as the source of his success and he wishes his daughter to achieve as highly as he did. However, it appears to have had limitations for him in that he could not secure a lasting relationship and I wonder if it would be possible for you to have a face-to-face conversation with him about this. Perhaps open questioning is the way to proceed as you are likely to achieve more if your ex comes to some conclusions himself. Ask him about his experience of perfectionism, what it has afforded him and what it has cost him. Enquire if he has ever considered its effect on his relationships and his overall wellbeing and happiness.

Try not to make him see your perspective but aim to set the seed of questioning in his mind. It is likely that if you challenge his righteous position directly he will simply become more defensive and convinced of his correctness.

Your daughter is clearly suffering – she is of an age where she might begin to implement her own ideas for her life and yet she is distressed and anxious. The lead-up to the Leaving Cert is not conducive to philosophical conversations but if she continues with the pressure she and her father are exerting on her, she will not be able to do her best and she will certainly be disappointed.

No doubt you have tried to reason with her but it is often extremely difficult for us to hear wisdom from those closest to us. Could you recruit a teacher she admires, or someone else, to have a conversation with her to help her see that doing our best involves a relaxed body, a quiet mind and self-compassion? If things become any worse, it is likely your daughter might be in need of professional help, as the relentlessness of pressure and perfectionism could cripple her capacity for clarity, creativity and focus.

Whatever we practise, we become better at and I wonder if she might understand that her current way of being will not stop with the Leaving Cert but will continue into her college life and beyond. You might help her question this trajectory but you are likely to be more successful in this if she is rested and in light of this, perhaps a weekend or a night away for the two of you could be organised? Of course, this would be more successful if you had her father’s approval, so you may have to sell this idea to him first.

Trust that your instincts regarding your daughter are right and be steadfast, but patient, in your conversations with him.