Relationship Between Academic Expectations and Anxiety Among Children/Adolescents
Most people would agree that life in general has become more challenging and stressful. Changing economic times has created a generation of overachieving, competitive and emotionally stressed individuals. For those of us raising children today it is not possible to minimize the insurmountable obstacles that our children are facing. Parents want their children to have every available opportunity to maximize their own unique potential. More importantly, as parents we want our children to achieve excellence academically, socially and athletically in order to compete with their peers.
Curriculum standards have become increasingly more challenging for our youth. This ambitious change occurred in 1997, when the Ontario government introduced an "intensive curriculum" for students from kindergarten to grade 8. According to E. Slavin, Professor of Physics at Trent University, many teachers considered this new curriculum "beyond the mental development of students at that level". From this initiative, the Ontario government introduced province wide standardized testing for children at specific grade levels throughout elementary school. Professor Slavin believed that the focus of teaching changed to accommodate these tests. Individual schools were graded according to the results of their students' standardized tests. Professor Slavin believed that these tests covered "too much material at too advanced a level" for these children. Learning became more of how much information you could retain rather than understanding and assimilating information as part of critical thinking development.
According to Statistics Canada, "teens between the ages of 15-19...average 9 hours of schoolwork, homework and paid work...on school days". Research results revealed that "homework was the most time consuming...60% of students averaged over 2 hours a day. In addition, high school students are expected to complete at least 30 hours of CSO (community service work) in order to graduate. This in addition to extracurricular activities and part-time jobs deemed necessary to enhance their resumes have contributed to a significant increase in stress related symptoms in our youth.
The pressure to succeed within a highly competitive society has placed a considerable burden upon our youth. According to Statistics Canada, “16% of our youth consider themselves "workaholics" and 39% felt pressure to accomplish more than they could manage.” Most concerning was that 64% of youth interviewed admitted that they "cut back on sleep in order to get things done".
Parents and educators are reinforcing the importance of good grades and job references in order to access top schools and potential jobs. This message or expectation creates considerable worry and anxiety for teenagers who are also struggling with other demands and challenges in their lives (peer acceptance, bullying, etc..,) Many teenagers will turn to self-medicating behaviours (drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders) to mitigate uncomfortable feelings of anxiety.
Research conducted by Dr. Antonia McGuire based upon conversations with educators, researchers and policy makers supported the fact that our youth are experiencing stress related symptoms prematurely. Overburdened by homework and extracurricular activities, our fragile youth are not emotionally, psychologically or developmentally prepared to multi task to such a degree. It is not uncommon for children as young as 6 or 7 years old to experience psychosomatic symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, irritability) indicative of stress and a precursor to a possible anxiety related disorder later on. For our teenagers, this period of time in their lives is a "phenomenal period of growth, development and transition.” One must remember that the teenager's brain is not fully mature until the age of twenty five. More significantly, important and essential changes are occurring to critical areas of the teenager's brain.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, functions such as"impulse control, judgment of risks and rewards, decision-making, planning, organization and processing of social and emotional information is in a state off lux, evolving and changing over the course of the next several years." Neuroscientists report that the brain of a teenager is "highly susceptible to stressors due to hormonal fluctuations in their brain".
Growing up in our current society, teenagers are over exposed to multimedia technology that instantly connects them and keeps them connected 24/7. Our youth do not have the opportunity to "disconnect from the world" and therefore do not know how to relax. Dr. McGuire believes that as parents and educators we must demonstrate to our children the importance of "emotional resiliency".
Dr. Lupin, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at DouglasHospital, McGill University, views stress in a different way. Dr. Lupin believes that time is not the true "culprit" rather than a person's ability to manage stress is dependent upon four distinct characteristics. These include "novelty, unpredictability, and threat to sense of self and poor sense of control". When these factors converge, people usually "snap". According to Dr. Lupin, "the reverse of stress is not meditation or relaxation...it is resilience and plan B".
The Canadian Association of Mental Health initiated a unique program for children and adolescents referred to as "Self Esteem is Elementary". The primary objective is to promote healthy habits for our youth. The focus is on positive self-esteem, anger management, conflict resolution, stress management and bullying. Parents and educators must become more knowledgeable and vigilant to the signs of stress in their children and adolescents. Some common psychosomatic symptoms are; difficulty sleeping, irritability, headaches, overreactions to minor events, difficulty concentrating and decrease in motivation. Some useful suggestions to parents to help their children manage stress is to encourage them to turn off all their electronics in the evenings, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, exercise, change unreasonable expectations, prioritize tasks, challenge negative thinking or beliefs.
University Affairs: article by Alain Slavin (Sept 10, 2007)
Canadian Mental Health Association (Ontario)