Exploring Academic Stress through Parental Pressure Lens

You must come 1st in the class. Look at your classmate!
"These may look like harmless regular parental comments but they will prove devastating to the psychology of the child."
"These may look like harmless regular parental comments but they will prove devastating to the psychology of the child." File: Pxhere [Creative Commons]

Parenting is a tough task and we appreciate parent’s focus to get the best out of their children. But it is important to understand the psychology of your child, of seeing things from their perspective. Let me share the following case studies: You must come 1st in the class. Look at your classmate.

How well she is doing. Her parents were so proud of her during the parent-teachers meetings. And we felt so bad. Why can’t you learn? What’s the problem with you? I am so upset. What would you do in life? You will end up with a lot of problems.

You can do everything, whatever you wish but just clear this competition. You do not know how important this is. This competition is a do or die issue for you; once you qualify it our rank in the social hierarchy will get elevated. Remember this is the only option. These may look like harmless regular parental comments but they will prove devastating to the psychology of the child.

“I do not have time to even breathe,” replied 10-year-old Sahiba when her grandmother complained that she hardly visits her. “There is school, then darsgah, then tuition center, homework, and revision,” she explained, leaving her grandmother feeling sorry for the overburdened child. “I cannot even play football with my friends because Daddy wants me to top every exam.” Moomin’s words reflect the situation of most children these days who feel overwhelmed with studies and the pressure to excel.

The present-day competitive world requires that a child acquires good grades so he/she can get admission to a good college, and eventually grab a good job. For this, parents often put huge pressure on their wards from a very tender age. Parents, who have unrealistic expectations from their child, risk seeing their child’s mental, emotional and physical well-being severely compromised.

Recognizing that each child is unique, parents need to be sensitive to their individuality, and encourage and motivate them to maximize their learning potential by praising their efforts, rather than their ability. In 2016, Arizona State University researchers carried out an interesting clinical trial that demonstrated mounting too much pressure on a child when it comes to good grades is simply wrong.

Parents who put too much focus on grades and extracurricular activities are minimizing the importance of social skills and compassion. Thus, they could actually be contributing to their child’s failure when it comes to being well-adjusted individuals and contributing members of society. Children experiencing parental pressure fear being perceived as imperfect by their parents.

The growing expectations of parents, coupled with academic stress, leave youngsters vulnerable to a host of problems. The school education system in our Union Territory is textbook oriented where the focus remains on systematic long hours of study every day and rote memorization.

The detailed study routines leave little time for recreation and socialization. On top of that, there is high competition against peers to perform better and outscore. From school-level to tertiary institutions, students experience academic stress at every step.

Undeniably, the constant academic stress takes a toll on the mental health of the students. In 2018, there were 1.3 lakh suicides in the country out of which eight percent were accounted for students. Many parents want their children to be the star of the class, the top of the school.

This is not wrong in that we must aim high to reach our utmost potential but there is, however, a saying that “a chicken can run, canoodle, play and eat. It can enjoy the time it lives. When it tries to fly, though, it will only disappoint itself”. When students are burdened with such high expectations, good intentions go astray.

Children are expected to score high in order to make their parents proud. But what happens when they are crushed by overly high expectations and are unable to achieve? The child always has nose in books, is stressed, and faces anxiety and fears of failing.

Sleep deprivation, eating disorders, excessive worrying, cheating, burnout, loss of interest in hobbies and withdrawal from friends and family can be among the consequences of excess pressure. Academic excellence should not be the parents’ sole concern.

A child may perform well in school, but just that does not groom one’s personality. Nowadays, the emphasis is on education and grades instead of motivation and perception, integration in society, and general knowledge.

The pressure to excel leads to stress and anxiety, as the child fears failure. When a child fails to come up to expectations, he or she is constantly criticized.

This creates a lack of confidence, doubts in their abilities, low self-esteem, poor self-image, stress and anxiety, which eventually lead to depression or behavioral problems. This could also lead to a refusal to participate and a loss of interest in hobbies as well as withdrawal from friends and family.

Fear of failure may also make them turn to drugs and refrain from communicating with their parents. Overpressure may lead to severe depression, suicidal tendencies and self-harming behavior, such as cutting one’s wrists. Imran, a computer sciences student in his early 20s is a victim of severe depression.

He says, “I have not secured enough marks in TOEFL level to apply to foreign universities and my parents were mad at me, telling everyone how I had embarrassed them. He recalls how his parents had searched for foreign universities since he was in grade 9th, and collected brochures to see where to send him.

I was expected to study all the time, and was not allowed to go out with friends or watch much television or even to go to the gymnasium, though fitness is my passion. Under so much stress and strain, I could not focus on my studies. Unlike Imran’s parents, some parents tend to push their children into becoming jack of all trades, which can create its own issues.

They want them to excel in academics as well as in co-curricular activities forgetting that if children score well in academics, they may not be good at other activities, and vice versa.

Overlooking the fact that statistical excellence is not everything, and some activities are pursued just for interest and passion, parents keep raising the anticlockwise bar which ultimately leads to stress and anxiety.

Schools too, often focus just on examination results instead of facilitating holistic development. It is important to inculcate activities based on the child’s interest. Unfortunately, there is no emphasis on reading beyond prescribed text-books.

In fact, many parents want to live their dreams through their children and start planning their youngster’s future when the child is quite young.

Parents sometimes squabble over what career the youngster  should pursue, forgetting that their child is an individual with his or her own thoughts and interests, and may not necessarily want to follow the line their parents have sketched  for them.

The same happened with Showkat whose parents wanted him to study medicine and become a doctor, while Showkat wanted to study Education subject and become a teacher. On being pressurized to follow his parent’s wishes, Showkat became so frustrated that he started taking drugs.

Thankfully, his Rashid uncle came to the rescue, put him in rehabilitation center and advised the parents to let him follow his dream. A son who dreams to be a teacher is far better than an addict says the uncle. Parents also often draw comparisons among relations reminding the youngster that so and so have been doing remarkably well, and that their child should surpass them.

Rabia was told that she has to score above 75% as she prepared for her 12th level exams, after her brother Ahmed had secured 78% in his 12th level exams. Rabia said “Why is it important to outdo him?” An intelligent student, Rabia says she had been pushed to compete with her brother since early days. I love my brother and am proud of his accomplishments, but I am a different person with different interests. We both had different subjects.

If he is good at engineering, it is because he is interested in it, same as I am interested in music and fine arts”. Comparing youngsters to cousins is a detrimental tendency, extremely negative behavior, and creates a sense of inferiority and unhealthy rivalry between them.

Every youngster is different and should be treated so. Rather than pressuring youngsters to excel in diverse fields, it would be better if they are allowed to follow their dreams and choose their career trajectory.  Talk to them as a friend and communicate without any inhibitions.

Try to locate the epicenter of the problem; if there company is bad, talk to them comfortably, empathetically listen to them with a patient ear,  let them share without any fear  what is happening or bothering  in their life , do not attack or hunt them, tell them you are there for them, show warmth and feeling of belongingness.

I conclude with these final words; In this age where a decimal point can be a deciding factor in one’s life, there is a dire need to address the issues of parenting expectations and academic stress.

Dr Showkat Rashid Wani, Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir

(Note: Names in the article may all be considered as not real)

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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