While school-going teenagers present with a myriad of problems, it has become an annual routine to come across at least two students who are on the verge of breakdowns because they did not make it to their coveted school councils. The gowns, the prestige, the power, the impact on college applications: the desire to officially lead your student body is immense. My degree in clinical psychology, and work as counsellor in different capacities, has allowed me to come across a wide range of socio-emotional issues in our cultural context.
School seniors remain an inspiration for all of us: their swagger, their achievements, their confidence — we have all secretly admired and looked up to them for years. To say that they are our first role models would not be a misnomer, and those wearing those authoritative gowns hold a special place. They probably become the ultimate yardstick of the first measure of our first success. Added to this personal fandom, is pressure from various teachers and staff members.
“I am in grade eleven now. For the past two years, I had been constantly told by my teachers that I am ‘head girl material’ and have a sure shot chance to lead my school,” says Sania, a student in a leading educational institute in Karachi. Sania’s selection was not to be based merely on her teachers’ recommendations but was to include nominations from students, teachers and the school management, a process that is generally followed in most schools now. Her teachers raised her expectations considerably but, unfortunately, the management’s vote was not in her favour and she did not make the cut. The result: extreme disappointment manifesting in symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression.
The lines between motivating and pressurising youngsters sometimes get blurred by well-meaning adults
“I hate going to school now,” confides the teary-eyed teenager. When I look at my friends who made it to the council, I feel extremely jealous, and don’t want to hang out with them. My studies have also been affected even though I know it’s a crucial year for me.”
High hopes from caregivers are a motivating factor for enhanced performance, but the flip side is the pressure that youngsters like Sania face due to high expectations. The disappointment that comes with a failure to achieve is not always easy to take. While the best strategy is to move on, youngsters may find it difficult to do so. The emotional pressure that comes with dealing with the disappointment sends them spiralling down. “So do we just stop giving our students goals to achieve?” asks Saad, a teacher in Sania’s school. “In my opinion, goal directedness has to be steered with the right choice of words,” says Rubina Feroz, a senior clinical psychologist. “‘Try your best, work hard and hope for the best’ is the recipe I recommend,” says the associate professor of psychology at Karachi University.
For various life situations, Feroze’s mantra is the best strategy but in the context of winning a once-in-a lifetime school election, there is no going back. An athlete can try harder next time for a lost match, a student can study more for the next test but there is no coming back to being the student head of your school. Hence, functional supporters such as teachers and, in many cases, parents root for their children to achieve a bigger responsibility instead of being cheerleaders.
Preparing youngsters for all eventualities and supportive flexibility are key life skills that have to be imparted to them. “All my friends worry a lot before parent-teacher meetings, because they fear their parents’ reactions,” smiles 12-year-old Saad, who is among the top students of his class in a top tier school in Karachi. “I, however, don’t worry at all, because my parents don’t say anything if I don’t do well,” he adds.
Saad is neither an underachiever nor a book worm. He gets admirable grades and is one of the best athletes in his schools. His mother’s mantra: always be there for your children to the best of your ability but don’t forget that failure is an important learning curve in life also resulting in better life-coping skills, according to experts. Saad is the polar opposite of 17-year-old Bilal, a college student. “When my O’ Level result came, my father a professor, and mother, a teacher, said they expected me to do better,” says Bilal. “I tried my best, I helped them at home, did whatever is possible for them, didn’t waste time with friends nor was careless with money, but they are never happy with me,” he laments. His grades were five As and four A stars.
The difference in a caregiver’s approach can be a make-or-break factor for youngsters. Everyone is capable of making mistakes — elders and their progeny. But resilience and a desire to get up and cope with life situations needs grit, one of the most important psychological qualities in current literature or emotionality. It is a key predictor for success.
*names have been changed for privacy
The writer has a degree in Clinical Psychology and certificate training in Art Therapy
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 2nd, 2018