Teach your child to excel under pressure

By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, School-based Psychologist

Teaching your child to excel when pressured is no small feat. The purpose of this article is to present strategies for teaching your child to thrive in chaos. But have we, as adults mastered this skill ourselves? As adults we often choke under pressure. I’m sure you’ve had a boss that exerted an extra sense of urgency; making his/her immediate problems your own. Even though we have had many years of experience to develop work arounds to reduce the adverse impact of unrealistic deadlines, the negative influence of toxic co-workers, and overwhelming demands from relentless family members; intense pressure still takes its toll.

The Risks Associated with Intense Pressure

The worry of failure creates high anxiety and influences students, workers and professionals working and studying in intense and highly competitive environments to: 

  • cheat on standardized assessments, college entrance, and vocational qualification exams (like Police, Firefighter, Series 7 Stockbroker),
  • cut regulatory and compliance corners related to stock trading, environmental health hazards (remember the Flint Water Crisis),
  • contemplate and partake in unethical behaviors such as insider trading,
  • encourage absenteeism and avoidance behaviors, and
  • revert to safe approaches routinely presented by high status and revered individuals and leaders rather than taking a small risk to implement original and individualized solutions offered by outside experts.

Bodily Changes when Beleaguered, Under Pressure and Put on the Spot

Why talk about pressure? When under pressure, one’s behavior is altered to negatively impact

  • psychomotor performance skills, and
  • performance capabilities.

Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry, in their book, “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing your Best when it Matters Most,” report upon their multi-year study of the top ten percent (1,200) out of 12,000 participants who had received more job promotions than their peers that ultimately led to career advancement. They found that the most successful (just the top ten percent of the overachieving group) were better equipped to manage intense pressure much more effectively than others experiencing the same level of pressure. Before discussing the details of their study, let’s talk about their definition of ‘intense pressure’ and the way in which it is distinguished between stress.

Intense Pressure Compared to Stress

The authors define pressure as stressful moments in life when the results of an action or decision matter.  I quote, “pressure moments or situations might feel like stress in our bodies and in our thinking, but they are different because, in a pressure moment, your success or your survival is truly on the line.” (page 35).  To put it more clearly, pressure is “a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance.” (page 37).  To put intense pressure in an individual perspective, they write that intense pressure can occur “when the outcome is important to you, the outcome is uncertain, and you feel as though you are responsible for, and being judged on the outcome.” (page 46).

What were some of the research-based techniques and strategies used to effectively manage pressure so that “the pressure will not get the best of you?”

Managing Intense Pressure Successfully

  • resist the internal temptation to prove yourself to others (this just adds more pressure to a pressurized situation)
  • use your body’s natural tools to perform your best (positive thoughts and creative visualization; physiological responses such as deep breathing exercises; body movements; voice; and your five senses) by counteracting the negative effects of intense pressure
  • refrain from becoming defensive when criticized by reframing the situation
  • use rote practice to rehearse tasks and hone your knowledge base such that ‘muscle memory’ and/or ‘automaticity’ will surface effortlessly with little reliance upon conscious thought, focus, and concentration (diminished during intense pressure)
  • appraise the situation and refrain from over-generalizations that can lead to negative self-talk, heightened arousal, counterproductivity, impulsive hostile comments directed toward others, and defeatist actions

Strategies for Teaching your Child to Excel under Intense Pressure

The above-mentioned methods for working productively while under intense pressure is all well and good for employed professionals and adults. But, how to we apply these to kids? How can we teach our children to excel under intense pressure? The best way to teacher your kids to work seamlessly under pressure is to:

  • incorporate opportunities for the accumulation of small successes throughout their childhood, adolescent, and teen years of development.

In so doing, parents “stimulate the winner effect” that causes in the short term, the release of positive, super charged natural chemicals of testosterone and dopamine. More importantly, however, is that in the long term, the constant and repeated wins force the brain to increase the number of testosterone receptors (receiving stations). With increased capacity and storage for even more testosterone, your child natural systems become more efficient in its use, particularly in competitive situations. Low levels of the hormone, testosterone in women can produce poor concentration and depression. Low levels of testosterone in men can lead to less energy, weight gain, depression moodiness and low self-esteem.

Now, let’s turn to dopamine. The authors found, when dopamine levels are high, the prefrontal cortex becomes more fully engaged such that our abilities for working memory, problem solving, planning and flexibility are enhanced. In fact, “we increase the number of chunks of information we can hold (up to five or six chunks).” (page 184). This can be interpreted to mean that we can clearly see all of our options, think more quickly and are much more decisive when under pressure.

Testosterone and dopamine even help to build confidence. But not just any confidence. Psychologists point to parent, teacher, and mentor misguided attempts to build confidence in youth by issuing constant praise and false “strokes of the ego” that can cause more damage than good. The authors write, “college students who had mediocre grades who got regular self-esteem strokes from their professors ended up doing worse on final exams than students who were told to apply themselves more and try harder.” (page 166). This principle applies too for working adults and professionals. They emphasize, “feeling good about ourselves comes after we succeed, not before.” (ibid).

  • challenge your child to apply previously learned knowledge to new concepts by using scaffolding and role modeling.

Scaffolding is a pedagogical term used by educators that enables children, teens and young adults to solve a problem or complete a task that is beyond their current capabilities. To help parents and their children tease through this process, it is often helpful to ask these questions:

  • what can the child currently do,
  • what can the child do with assistance, guidance, modeling, and hands-on support, and
  • what the child can not do at this time?

In the end, solid parenting acumen requires parents to instill self confidence in their children by presenting successively progressive opportunities and challenges for their child to succeed. This will create a ‘winner’s complex‘ that will carry them forward regardless of what they eventually choose to do with their lives, or which career they intend to pursue.


Roland, J. and Robinson, D. “What is Testosterone?” Healthline.Com, January 7, 2021.

Weisinger, H. and Pawliw-Fry, J. “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing your Best when it Matters Most,” Crown Business, NY, 2015.

Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA https://www.ishareknowledge.com is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at: tonya at ishareknowledge dot com