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No amount of A-grades or bragging rights is worth a depressed or dead child

Parents work hard to provide their children with good prospects and a stable future. So it’s understandable they place so much value on their kids’ academic performance and development.

Seeing your child score straight As and thriving in extracurricular activities is cause for celebration, but the pressure on young people to perform can lead to them having mental and physical health problems.

Even those who achieve success consistently can have problems. I’ve met clients with high anxiety or depression symptoms because they “feel defined by grades” and as high achievers. They worry about letting their parents down, and their self-worth is extremely fragile as a result.

In the worst cases, the psychological burden can lead young people to suicidal thoughts. In South Korea, many young people who attempt to take their own lives cite academic stress as the main cause. They were far from weak – even the strongest among us would eventually fold under such heavy and constant pressure.

An Oct 12, 2018, article by The Star (“Too many teens suffering from stress”) reported a national survey finding that one in five Malaysians aged 13 to 17 suffered depression, two in five struggled with anxiety, and one in 10 experienced stress. One reason given for the rise in suicide rates (which have since increased due to the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic) is the “exam-orientated culture” that can cause acute stress for many students who believe the grades they achieve will map their entire future.

This is, of course, a misguided belief and it points to something much more affecting than academic pressure alone. Exam stress is normal but we might want to question why many students experience the kind of excessive stress that gives rise to major mental health problems.

The difficulty doesn’t just lie within the education system but how some parents communicate the importance not of education itself but the grades they strongly urge their children to chase.

It’s understandable. What parent wouldn’t want their child to perform well academically? Never-theless, parents have to be mindful of how they encourage their kids. If children grow up believing how they perform defines their worth, they’re likely to face difficult challenges as they try to make their way into adulthood and the workplace.

It can be tempting to say today’s kids are soft, but every generation thinks like that of the one that comes after it. The silent generation (born between 1928 and 1945) saw baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) as soft and spoiled.

As times change and technology advances, so do the psychological demands placed on each new generation. Today’s kids need only look at their phones to be reminded how much they don’t live up to the millions of people they can instantly compare themselves with. It’s not enough to just look good. There are persistent pressures to be productive, entrepreneurial, innovative, creative, artistic, and a paragon of social activism. All the while remembering self-care routines and daily journalling.

To rest and be happy within ourselves are the cardinal sins of a modern age that’s always demanding we push ourselves to be more. All of this has real life consequences when kids don’t have nurturing support from those they look to for love and acceptance.

This is why, when it comes to academic performance, it’s so important to celebrate effort rather than results. No amount of A- grades or bragging rights is worth a depressed or dead child.

Let’s compare these examples:

“You got all As! Good. Now you can go on and study medicine and work towards being top of your class. Make your parents proud and take your studies seriously.”

“You got all As! Well done, you put in so much hard work and effort, we’re so proud of you. We’ll be supporting you in your next steps and as long as you try your best, that’s what matters to us.”

“You got three As and two Bs. Why not five As? Don’t you care about your future? Will you be able to get into our first-choice programme? This is so disappointing. Tell us, what went wrong with you?”

“You got three As and two Bs! That’s a wonderful effort, we know how much you put into this. It might not be the results you were hoping for and that’s OK. Grades don’t define a person, character does, and you always try your best even if things are challenging. We’re so proud of you, and whatever you want to do next, keep giving it your best shot.”

How parents communicate with their children has a tremendous effect on how the children see and value themselves. Many parents won’t realise this because kids are masters at hiding what they truly feel. But every therapist at some point will have seen what many parents don’t, and it is heartbreaking. Always praise the effort rather than the grades. Focus on the person rather than the paper. It’ll make all the difference in providing children with the security, confidence, and resilience they need to make their way in the world.


Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.



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