Tuesday 20 January 2015

Kids' stress: Whose fault is it?

Parents acknowledge that their desire for their kids to have a good future may be the main cause of the cycle of stress
By Venessa Lee, The Sunday Times, 18 Jan 2015

Accountant Goh Ruoh Sze used to sit next to her elder child, Daniel, to ensure he did his primary school homework and assessment books.

Finding that she lacked the patience to teach him at home, Ms Goh, who is in her 40s, started enrolling him for tuition in all of his four subjects from Primary 4. Now a Secondary 3 student, 14-year-old Daniel receives tuition in six subjects.

While many acknowledge that Singapore's education system is competitive and demanding, Ms Goh thinks that parents are the "main cause" of studies- related stress in kids.

"I keep asking Daniel to stop playing Xbox games, to do his work or take a break by reading instead. I have been stressing him out for the longest time," Ms Goh says, adding that her eight-year-old daughter, Dorothy, is a "happy-go-lucky" child who has not experienced academic stress yet.

Exhorting Daniel, who declined to be interviewed, to study stems from a deep, near-universal parental desire for a good future for her son - and from feeling stressed herself.

She says: "Life without a good certificate is difficult in terms of finding a good job. I want him to excel and I don't see it happening so I find it stressful. I feel stress when I don't see him studying."

She is taking steps to stop the negativity in this cycle of stress and adds: "I want to let go, I don't want to keep nagging. I don't give him enough moral support. I'm learning to speak positively and to be encouraging, rather than only asking him, 'Have you finished your work? When's your test?' He's also matured and is more self-motivated."

While parents, experts and educators interviewed by SundayLife! hold different views on the causes of studies-related stress in children here, many agree that parental expectations regarding academic performance play a key role in generating stress.

Ms Petrine Lim, the principal social worker at Fei Yue Family Service Centre (Yew Tee), says: "Part of studies- related stress could be the expectations of parents."

To illustrate this, she recounts how a girl, an "average" student who had been struggling academically in secondary school, was pressured by her parents to get better grades.

She adds: "The girl engaged in self-harming behaviour for about two years. She hid in the toilet or a room to cut herself, mainly on the upper arm and upper thigh. The parents chanced upon it and they and their child have been attending counselling sessions for the past six months."

Ms Kelly Yeo, a senior clinical psychologist at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health, advises parents to manage their own expectations, to alleviate any studies-related stress their children might feel.

"Parents need to learn to place more emphasis on the children's efforts. Sometimes, the kids cannot really control their grades, if they are already doing their best," she says.

"Parents might say they don't apply pressure on their child, but if they say, 'What did the teacher say about your result?' or 'How did your friends do on the test?', they are sending the message that the child is not quite good enough."

But she cautions against simplifying the issue, noting that there are a few causes of studies-related stress in children, including the education system ("with its heavy emphasis on grades"), parents ("who may enrol their children in too many tuition and enrichment classes") and the children themselves ("who want to please teachers and parents with good grades").

Ms Clarinda Choh, director of the gifted education programme at Hwa Chong Institution, says expectations of high achievement may not always be realistic.

She adds: "A lot of students have expectations of themselves - what they think their parents expect of them and what they think the school expects of them. Very often, the kids don't want to disappoint. They feel as if they can't meet the expectations of their parents and sometimes of their peers.

"A lot of it is the perception of what constitutes success on the part of the students. I've encountered students who are upset scoring an A2 alongside straight A1s. The journey towards excellence must be mitigated by realistic expectations and being content when one has indeed done one's best."

Some parents attribute studies-related stress to overlapping demands and expectations, within an already demanding school environment.

Psychiatrist Thomas Lee, 40, says the education system is stressful - the Primary 5 syllabus for Hannah, 10, the eldest of his three children, includes learning about genetics and the reproductive system.

His wife, homemaker Geraldine Koh, 39, adds: "Hannah did pretty well for her exams last year, so she was placed in a better mathematics group this year in Primary 5. She was worried about coping and meeting the expectations of teachers and parents. I think, naturally, the teachers want students to do well.

"As parents, we look at things like whether she understands the lessons. Thankfully, she does. She knows that if she does well in school, it will make us happy. But we've never said she must score a certain mark. We just want our children to do their best."

Hannah has tuition in Chinese, English writing and Maths, while her younger sister Elizah, eight, is tutored in Chinese and English writing.

To counter the demands of school and tuition, the girls take art classes to "destress", says Ms Koh. Hannah also takes ballet and Elizah, gymnastics classes.

Another parent, corporate communications executive Jyotika Thukral, reckons that studies-related stress - which her 12-year-old daughter felt last year while preparing for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) - can be attributed to a broader reason: globalisation.

"Stress is always there because everyone's vying for the best jobs, schools and university places. It's everywhere, in many countries. It's becoming more prevalent. When I talk to my cousins in India, for example, they bring up the same thing," says Mrs Thukral, an Indian national and a Singapore permanent resident who has lived here for about seven years.

Ms Nurwanah Nensuri, a sales coordinator in a chemical trading firm, saw her two daughters experiencing academic stress during their key examination years, "one after the other".

In 2013, her younger daughter, Nurul Jannah, took the PSLE. The elder girl, Nur Dini Usaimah, took her O-level exams last year. Both girls describe themselves as "average" students.

Ms Nurwanah, 41, says she and her husband, Mr Muhammad Romi Muhammad, a 41-year-old operations executive in the marine industry, "have never pushed our children".

She adds: "They push themselves. My husband and I want our girls to live happily and be well-rounded, and not be stressed over their studies."

However, despite frequent parental assurances, both daughters had their own expectations.

Jannah, now 13 and in Secondary 2, says she chose to go to her current secondary school because its entry requirements were lower than another school she was considering.

"In the school I attend now, I'm just an average, normal student. I didn't want to go to the other school, where people might expect me to do better since I would be among the students with the better PSLE scores. It's very stressful," says Jannah.

Her 16-year-old sister, Dini, has just received her O-level results, but went through a lot of stress last year while preparing for the exams.

Dini lost her appetite and "a lot of weight", and suffered from migraines and dizzy spells, says her mother. Last year, Dini was worried about losing a day's revision when her parents insisted on the family going away to Malaysia for a weekend in June, and she sometimes worked late into the night, till 2am.

She broke down at a parent-teacher meeting on account of the stress. She says: "I wanted to do well and make my parents proud, even though they said, 'Just do your best' and they knew I had done my best. It's just my own thinking.

"Some part of it was because my peers seemed brighter than me. I just want to show them that I can be as clever as them."

Earlier this week, Dini was "ecstatic" when she received her O-level results and has enrolled in a polytechnic, which was her goal.

She now thinks that the stress she went through was "kind of worth it".

She says: "No pain, no gain, after all."

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