Across the world, the academic and social pressures on tweens (i.e., pre-adolescent children) and teens (13-18 year olds) have escalated to an all-time high, as have the prevalence of mental health issues among these age groups. When it comes to adults, aspects such as work pressure, unrealistic work commitments, burnout, and toxic productivity are actively discussed in the global media, however, the impact of similar pressures on our children has been notably absent. There is no doubt that the covid pandemic has triggered a proliferation in mental health issues amongst the youth, however, the pandemic has just illuminated an already existing societal problem namely, extreme pressure on tweens and teens regarding their academic performance and merit, accompanied by unrealistic parental standards and relentless social comparison.
Over the past year, there has been a stark increase in the rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm behaviours, and suicide among children and adolescents (ages 3-18 years). According to research and the WHO, over the past year, there has been an increase of 17,7% in depression and anxiety among children aged 3-18 years, with 24% more children and adolescents reporting to the emergency unit for a mental health related issue. Even though these statistics are based on children and adolescents in the UK, similar increases have also been reported in other countries such as the US, Netherlands, Peru, and China 1, 2.
Even though the Covid pandemic has contributed substanitally to the stark increase, it has also exposed our youth’s vulnerability.
Schools and Society
Before covid even hit, children and adolescents were already struggling to meet parental, societal, and self-internalised standards of achievement and success. Most children are raised with the belief that the perfect life and lifestyle, which is recognised by achievement, wealth, and social status, are available to them provided that they try hard enough. Oh, and heaven forbid if a child does not reach society’s educational and professional heights! Our society of meritocracy then dictates that these children are less deserving and that their sub-par achievements are a clear reflection of their inadequate personal abilities. As such, we have tied our children’s sense of worth to their achievements. Sadly, children internalise these beliefs and consider it to be true i.e., that they are only worthy if they achieve. To them, failure in academics equates to failure as a person. This has made children and adolescents fearful of any prospect of failure. Moreover, children cannot help but be sorted, sifted, and ranked by schools and universities, causing them to develop a relentless internal need to strive, perform, and achieve. This leaves them open to the development of burnout, mood disorders, low-self-esteem, lack of control, self-harm behaviours, and even suicide.
In the older days, educational institutions’ primary aim was to equip students with essential skills to make a living and broaden their knowledge. However, modern meritocracy has turned skills into commodities which are considered only valuable if they generate economic value (Verhaeghe, 2014). This is evident by the fact that in 1976 half of high school seniors were expected to attain at least some college degree, whereas by 2008 this figure had risen to over 80% (Jacob & Wilder, 2011)! All this focus on merits and academic achievements have left our children to over-value performance and undervalue the self. It has taught them that anything less than perfection is unworthy and unacceptable. As such, any endeavour to achieve perfection is actively encouraged and rewarded.
Within a culture that promotes merits and achievements, performance and perfection, parents face an additional burden. On top of their own need to achieve and succeed, parents also take on the responsibility for the success and achievement of their children. Should a child not be able to navigate this increasingly competitive culture, then it is not just the child that fails, but also the parents. This internalised concern for the success of one’s child is what psychologists refer to as child-contingent self-esteem (Soenens et al., 2015) and which are at the extreme in today’s performance-driven era. According to Ramey and Ramey (2010), since the early 1990s, mothers have reallocated their time spent with their children from leisure activities to education. In fact, over 9 hrs per week are now afforded to childcare and education instead of engaging in leisure activities. Additionally, parenting practices have taken on detrimental behaviours, such as parents:
- being more anxious and overcontrolling
- being excessively involved in their children’s routines, activities, and emotions
- providing less autonomous support
- showing less interest in child’s ideas and passions
- being hypersensitive and adverse to mistakes
- having high expectations with high criticism
- being overly harsh on academic failures
From the above, it is clear that children and adolescents were already struggling before the Covid pandemic hit. It is then not surprising that the effects of Covid pandemic is negatively impacting our children and adolescents on a substantial scale.
Even though Covid did bring about more family time and leisure activities for some children and adolescents, for others meant spending time indoors in very confined spaces with very little to do, surrounded by unemployed, anxious, and stressed out parents. For others it was accompanied by an even greater emphasis by their parents on success, education, merits, and achievements. On top of all these stressors, Covid also brought with a blanket of uncertainty; masking most of our lives. Uncertainty is a normal state of the human condition, and it is always accompanied by some level of anxiety. However, as adults we are, more often than not, able to recognise our anxiety for what it is and link it to our experience of uncertainty. For children and adolescents, this is often not the case. Most children do not even have the word “anxiety” in their vocabulary. Needless to say, have the tools to deal with it. For adolescents, even though they may be able to label their emotional state as “anxious”, they are often unequipped to deal with their anxiety in a healthy manner.
So, what can we as parents, educators, and youth activists do to assist our youth in becoming more resilient citizens and help them protect their own mental health–both during and post-Covid?
Here are 4 key ways through which you can make a substantial impact:
- #1 – Observe Non-Judgementally: Unlike adolescents, when young children are experiencing high levels of anxiety and/or depression, they tend to not verbalise this because they do not have the vocabulary (i.e., words) to describe how they are feeling as “anxious” or “depressed”. As such, the best approach is to observe if there are any changes in the child’s general behaviour. For example, has he/she become more withdrawn, or perhaps more impulsive, or appear to be more irritable or frustrated? If you do notice a change, then it’s time for tip #2.
- #2 – Listen, clarify, and label: Children have difficulty at the best of times to express how they are feeling without proper guidance from their parents and/or caregivers. This task becomes even more arduous when a child is naturally more withdrawn or already experiences difficulty with expressing his/her emotions. Therefore, the most valuable thing you can do for your child in this regard is to guide them through their emotions by firstly, listening to what they are saying, then repeat to them what you’ve heard them say and clarify whether you are hearing them correctly. Lastly, help them label what they are experiencing. By doing this, you are helping them build up an emotional vocabulary which forms a key foundation in emotional intelligence. Now that they are able to identify what they are feeling, you are ready to implement tip #3.
- #3 – Build an emotional toolbox: When children (and adolescents) do not have the necessary skills to deal with their emotions, they will attempt various behaviours to help them find one that will work in helping them cope with their difficult emotions. This sounds all well and fine until they find a behaviour with negative consequences, such as throwing a tantrum to help alleviate anger or frustration, or withdrawing from everyone and suppressing difficult emotions, or being disruptive to alleviate anxiety and fear. Therefore, the best way to help children build an emotional toolbox is by discussing with them the different ways in which they can deal with difficult emotions. For example, when a child refuses to do their homework and starts behaving in a disruptive manner, it Is best to gently ground the child emotionally by letting the child calm down and in a non-judgemental way ask what is keeping them from completing their homework. Very often when children are fearful of failure or feel they feel they are not competent enough to complete the task, they will rather choose not to attempt the task at all. It is exactly for this reason that tip #4 is so valuable.
- #4 – Focus on just “good enough“: As discussed above, when children have internalised the belief that their value as a person is tied to their academic performance, they will come to fear any prospect of failure. As such, when they feel that they will be unable to meet the standards set for them, they will experience high levels of stress and anxiety. Similarly, when they attempt something and they fail, their sense of worth is threatened and they become vulnerable to experience feelings of worthlessness, despair, and low self-esteem. If not address, these feelings can give rise to the development of depressive disorders, addictions, eating disorders, self-harm behaviours and/or suicide.
As a parent, educator, or caregiver, you can help in two key ways: 1) lower the expectation bar, and 2) help them detach their sense of self from their achievement(s).
Lowering the expectation bar does not mean removing all standards for your child/adolescent, it means setting standards that are realistic given the current situation. For example, instead of putting more pressure on your child/adolescent to achieve merit status, help them to just do what is “good enough” (i.e., their best). So, if your child is used to achieving all A’s, instead of focusing on “keeping in up”, be ok with less than an A! Things do not have to be perfect to be worthy. Perfection is an illusion and will never ever realise! As such, do not expect perfection from your child/adolescent, as you will cause more harm than good. By focusing on who they are as a person, whether they achieve or not, and highlighting what their strengths are, you are communicating to them that they are more than just their academic marks. This will invariably help them detach their sense of self-worth from their achievements, leaving them with greater emotional resiliency, confidence, and self-efficacy.
We all just want the best for our children, and therefore, it is important to be aware of their unique strengths and limitations. We need to prioritise their mental wellbeing, just like we would our own. We also need to create an awareness of the expectations we place on them and evaluate how realistic they are. By implementing these #4 strategies you are actively making a substantial positive impact on your child/adolescent’s mental wellbeing.
- Curan, T., & Hill, A. P. (2016). Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138
- Jacob, B. A., & Wilder, T. (2011). Educational expectations and attainment. In G. Duncan & R. Murname (Eds.), Whither opportunity: Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances (pp. 133–165). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Ramey, G., & Ramey, V. A. (2010). The rug rat race. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring, 129–176. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eca.2010.0003
- Soenens, B., Wuyts, D., Vansteenkiste, M., Mageau, G. A., & Brenning, K. (2015). Raising trophy kids: The role of mothers’ contingent self-esteem in maternal promotion of extrinsic goals. Journal of Adolescence, 42, 40–49. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.04.001
- Verhaeghe, P. (2014). What about me? The Struggle for identity in a market-based society. London, UK: Scribe Publications.