How to deal with an over-demanding parent

143chafern asks: I’m a competitive swimmer and I really love it. The thing is, my dad keeps pushing me – like, if I don’t swim well, he gets all moody. He expects me to perform well, and at the same time to do my studies also. I do manage my studies, and keep in good shape, but nothing is enough for my Dad! I feel so under pressure! I can’t be an Olympic swimmer and an A+ student at the same time! When I told that to my dad, he said there are many kids of my age who can, but… why can’t he understand I’m not them?!

Hi 143chafern –



This is not a new problem.  I don’t know who the first person was who cared about succeeding in a competitive world, but the first one of those who had a child began this problem.  And the problem has existed ever since.


There’s no easy answer.  You’d be miserable if your father didn’t notice or care, or take pride in your swimming prowess.  But this situation stinks too.  I have no doubt that your dad means well, and just wants to press you to do your best, but the fact is he’s pushing too hard.


I’ll be honest with you, 143chafern – I’m very encouraged by your insistence that you’re good enough without meeting his demands.  The nightmare for lots of people is when they internalize the expectations of others, and then feel shamed or inadequate for not meeting these super-high dreams.


Now note, this doesn’t mean I want you to be satisfied with mediocrity, any more than he does.  Anyone on your side wants you to swim like a barracuda and be the greatest student since Stephen Hawking!  But when you don’t accomplish those – when you come in second in a race, or get a B, it’s really important that it not ruin your self-image.


The truth is, of course, you can’t control how you place in a competitive race.  The same speed might get you a first-place medal at a high school meet, but wouldn’t get you included on an Olympic team.  But you’re the same swimmer, at the same level of excellence.  Similarly, there might be subjects at school, or even classes with particular teachers, where you do better or worse than with others, with the same amount of work.


So here’s my thought.  I can’t promise it’ll work, but it’s worth a try.  Sit down with your dad and discuss how much time a day, or week, you should practice swimming, and how much you should be studying (and demand some free time for hanging with friends, chilling alone, etc. too).  Make a schedule with him, a very strict one, and stick to it.  If you agree to swim two hours a day after school, don’t try to get out after 119 minutes!  And if you promise to study from 6:30 to 9:00 every night, and a tv show comes on you want to see at 8, record it and watch it an hour later.


The goal here is that, if you stick to what you’ve agreed to do, you’re taking away his right to complain or harass you.  And if you study hard and get an A, then that’s fantastic; but if you get a B, he has to accept it.  Now he might say that studying is more important than swimming, and so might want to move a half-hour of your swimming time to studying.  That’s okay.  Or if you have a big meet coming up, he might move a half-hour the other way.  That’s okay too.  But what we’re doing here is putting the focus on the thing that you can completely control (your practice/study schedule) instead of driving you nuts by arguing about what you can’t (winnings and grades).


I hope this is enough to help.  If he still keeps bugging you, though, I have a harsher recommendation.  You might ask him to read an amazing and very painful book, called “Open,” by Andre Agassi.  Agassi is one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and had a very tempestuous professional career, from the heights of being #1 and marrying a famous model and movie star, to the depths of drug abuse and his career collapsing, and back up.  And the reason for most of this was that his father was like yours, but probably much worse (to the degree that he talks about hating tennis for most of his career!  At least you still love swimming!).  If your dad reads this, he might get a better sense of the need to pull back, to remain encouraging and supportive of you, but not just be a demanding voice of pressure.


Let me know how it goes.  As someone who loves jumping in the water, but can only manage a very weak dog-paddle, I envy your skill.  I just want to make sure you’re able to enjoy your superiority over me for the rest of your life!






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