"I don’t have time to even breathe,” replied 10-year-old Arsalan* when his grandmother complained that he hardly visited her.
“There is school, then Quran lessons, then tuition, homework, and revision,” he explained, leaving his grandma feeling sorry for the overburdened and frustrated child. “I can’t even play cricket with my friends because Dad wants me to top every exam.”
Arsalan’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 university, and eventually land a good job. For this, parents often put enormous pressure on their wards from a very young age.
“Parents who have unrealistic expectations from their children, risk seeing their children’s mental, emotional and physical well-being severely compromised,” says Dr Samina Masood Haider, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Ziauddin University.
Putting kids under too much pressure to perform can have serious consequences for them
“Recognising that each child is unique, parents need to be sensitive to their individuality, and encourage and motivate them to maximise their learning potential by praising their efforts, rather than their ability,” she says. “Children experiencing parental pressure to excel are often reluctant to attempt anything unless they are convinced that they will be the best at it. They fear being perceived as imperfect by their parents.”
The growing expectations of parents, coupled with academic pressure, leave children vulnerable to a host of problems.
“Academic excellence should not be the parents’ sole interest,” says Dr Nargis Asad, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Aga Khan University.
“Sometimes even behavioural issues are ignored because the child is good in studies. 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,” says Dr Asad. “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 criticised. This creates a lack of confidence, doubts in their abilities, low self-esteem and poor self-image, but also stress and anxiety, which eventually leads to depression or behavioural problems.
Children under pressure may also suffer mental illnesses, sleep deprivation, eating disorders, excessive worrying and defensive attitudes. 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 behaviour, such as cutting one’s wrists,” Dr Asad warns.
“I felt like killing myself,” says Kamran*, a computer sciences student in his early 20s. “I had not secured enough marks in A’ levels 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 10, and collected prospectuses 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 TV or even to go to the gym, though fitness is my passion. Under so much pressure, I could not concentrate on my studies.”
Unlike Kamran’s parents, some parents tend to push their children into becoming all-rounders, which can create its own issues. They want them to excel in academics as well as in extracurricular activities, such as sports, music, arts, etc., forgetting that if children score well in academics, they may not be good at sports or other activities, and vice versa.
Ignoring the fact that excellence is not everything, and some things are pursued just for interest, parents keep raising the bar which ultimately leads to stress and anxiety.
Schools too, often focus just on performance in exams instead of facilitating a child’s growth and development. “It is important to inculcate hobbies based on the child’s interest,” says Dr Asad. “Unfortunately, there is no emphasis on reading beyond course books or exercise, though it filters on overall personality.”
However, she points out that such interests should remain a hobby, and not be turned into a struggle to excel. “Schools should have inclusive activities, and involve all students in extracurricular activities rather than involve only those students who are good. This affects students’ self-esteem and gives rise to depressive symptoms.”
In fact, many parents want to live their dreams through their children and start planning their children’s future when the child is quite young. Parents sometimes squabble over what career the child 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 chosen for them.
The same happened with Salman* whose father wanted him to study medicine and become a doctor, while Salman wanted to study commerce and become a chartered accountant.
On being pressurised to follow his father’s wishes, Salman became so frustrated that he started taking drugs. Thankfully, his uncle came to the rescue, put him in rehab and advised the parents to let him follow his dream. “A chartered accountant son is far better than an addict or a dead son,” says the uncle.
Parents also often draw comparisons among siblings or cousins, reminding the child that so and so has been doing so well, and that their child should surpass them.
“Now you have to get at least eight As,” Farah* was told as she prepared for her O’ level exams, a couple of years after her brother Ahmed* secured eight As in O’ levels. “Why is it important to outdo him?” Farah, now an art student, would rightly question.
An intelligent and bright student, Farah 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 computers, it is because he is interested in it, same as I am interested in and good at art and craft,” she says.
“Comparing children to siblings and cousins is a detrimental tendency, extremely negative behaviour, and creates a sense of inferiority and unhealthy rivalry between them. Every child is different and should be treated so,” says Dr Asad.
Rather than pressuring children to excel at everything, it would be better if the children are allowed to follow their dreams, choose their career paths, and be encouraged to give their best at whatever they do.
**Name changed to protect privacy*
The writer is a freelance journalist and tweets @naqviriz
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 13th, 2022