Parents' high expectations stress out children

By Quynh Nguyen   April 14, 2022 | 10:00 pm PT
Parents' high expectations stress out children
A 12th grader in a class at the Viet Duc High School in Hanoi, Dec. 6., 2021 Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy
Mai Ngoc says her life changed overnight after she failed the entrance exam to get into the high school her parents liked.

"During every meal my mother criticizes or compares me with other children," the 16-year-old, now a student at a private high school in Ho Chi Minh City, lamented.

Her parents have always willingly paid for extra courses she wants, no matter how expensive, and in return, she has always worked hard to achieve top scores to meet her mother's expectations.

Binh, her mother, found the best possible tutors to provide her with the best learning environment, and would also herself tutor Ngoc at home until the clock ticked past 11 p.m.

If Ngoc complained about being tired, she would say kids like her should not do so since they "only eat and study."

"Whenever she said that I would remain silent because I knew no matter what I said she would not understand and might even think I was being insolent," Ngoc says.

After consistently ranking in the top 10 in class for nine years, she fell half a point short in math in the high school entrance exam.

Besides comparing her with her friends' children, Binh even speculated that Ngoc was distracted from her studies because she was dating someone.

She grounded her and confiscated her phone.

Ngoc says she went from being an active and outgoing person to a taciturn and quiet girl then.

"My mother is obsessed with high grades and does not care what I want or need. I am afraid of my mother's overbearing and domineering approach to caring".

She was stressed out and did not look forward to coming home after school.

Dr Duong Minh Tam, head of the department of stress-related disorders at Bach Mai Hospital’s Institute of Mental Health in Hanoi, says Ngoc has symptoms of depression.

He expresses concern that depression in adolescents has become pervasive in recent years.

So much so that in 2020 some 39 percent of people visiting the Bach Mai mental health clinic were between the ages of 14 and 19, a majority of them are good students and in their last years of middle and high schools.

Tam says problems arise because children conceal their problems or avoid talking openly about them to their family while parents refuse to acknowledge their children have mental health issues.

As a result, he says, patients frequently come to the hospital at a very late stage.

A study he conducted along with colleagues in 2020 found that the root cause of depression in adolescence is a conflict between children and society’s concept of being "good children, good students".

Thus, according to psychologists and educators, not all children suffer from depression as a result of parental pressure and many put too much pressure on themselves.

The more they study, the more pressure they feel to succeed.

Thuy Trang, 20, of the central Ha Tinh Province, still gets shivers when she talks about the pressures she faced as a student at a prestigious high school for the gifted.

Now a sophomore at a university in Hanoi, she felt suffocated by the competition in school, pressure to maintain top rank in class and teachers' expectations she would win top prizes in competitions.

She once competed in a national competition for outstanding students in 12th grade, and everyone expected her to win. But she came third. Instantly her teachers' attitudes changed, she noticed. The homeroom teacher entered the classroom to congratulate the second-placed student, who was also in her class, and completely ignored Trang.

"They did not recognize my efforts over many months," she says with a sigh.

"I still remember I would fall asleep at the table from exhaustion while studying for the competition.

"I despised everything around me at that time, and my academic performance also went downhill as a result of being treated unfairly, humiliated and unable to find sympathy and understanding".

She is grateful that her parents kept encouraging her constantly.

Tran Thanh Nam, dean of the faculty of educational sciences at the VNU University of Education in Hanoi, says for some students test scores are synonymous with self-esteem and pride.

Failure to perform as expected results in an individual being judged as worthless and unworthy of respect, and this is one of the factors influencing children's psyche, he says.

He lists some reasons for instability in children like spending too much time on social media resulting in spending less time with family and not fostering social relationships; physiological changes during adolescence; lack of experience in dealing with and resolving situations and emotions; and academic pressure at school.

"Psychologically, some students tend to exaggerate the problem, viewing a minor issue as a major catastrophe, and overgeneralize or always imply that they will be unable to bear it. All this makes it easy for deviant behaviors to occur."

Ninh Thi Hong, former vice president of the Vietnam Child Protection Association, says some children are rebellious and become taciturn as they defy their parents.

"Kids often have spontaneous thoughts when they do not see eye to eye with their parents."

The relationship between Thuy Han, 15, of Hanoi and her mother became more distant after two years of studying online due to the pandemic.

During that time she rarely spoke to her mother since they had frequent disagreements. Besides, she was often compared to her peers.

Instead of opening up to her family, Han chose to become quiet and uncommunicative as a form of protest when her mother raised her voice.

"I find that being silent is effective because after a while of speaking without getting a response from me, my mother stops complaining," she says.

According to Young Minds, a mental health research and support organization in the U.K., the number of children aged five to 16 with symptoms of mental illness increased by 50 percent between 2017 and 2021.

One out of every six teenagers suffers from psychological issues. According to some studies, social media has a negative impact on the minds of teenagers.

A survey published in March by the research organization Common Sense Media found that the average time spent on phones by children and adolescents increased by 17 percent between 2019 and 2021 and to much higher levels than even four years ago.

A 2015 Pew Research study found that 73 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to smartphones, and 24 percent are almost constantly online.

A study done by the American Psychological Association found that teenagers who spend a lot of time on social media, the Internet, texting, and playing video games have poorer psychological health and are less happy than those who spend time outside.

People who use their phones for five hours a day are nearly twice as likely to develop depression as those who use them for one hour.

Hong agrees with the view that social networks are a double-edged sword.

Besides finding entertainment in the virtual world many children also want to share their stories there, but this is also where they become victims of some malicious groups and bad influences.

Duc Anh of the central Nghe An Province shared his sadness and disappointment at failing the college entrance exam on a closed online community with 23,000 members. He hoped to find sympathy and solace from someone in the same boat as him.

But in addition to encouraging comments, he also received messages suggesting he should end his life.

"They also sent private messages and gave specific instructions about how to kill myself. Fortunately, I was still aware enough to leave the group and keep negative thoughts out of my mind".

But not everyone is as rational.

Quynh Huong, 16, of Hanoi, was invited by a friend to join an online group of 2,000 adolescents who "hate their parents."

"My mother always brings home frustration from work. She always scolds me and sometimes beats me if I do something wrong," he says.

"She never listens to me to understand me. So I wanted to seek sympathy from people in the same situation as me online".

Before being accepted into the group, prospective members must answer questions like "Have you ever argued or fought with your parents?" and "What was the harshest thing you've ever said to your parents?"

Huong says: "I found a lot of sympathy in this group. Everyone expressed their dissatisfaction and frustrations with their parents, and many used vulgar language. I know such statements and behaviors are incorrect, but they make me feel better."

Thuy Kim, 52, of the northern Hai Phong City quietly created a virtual account and joined this group in the hope of better understanding her son.

"I am a bit sad after reading some of the comments about parents.

"The traditional method of child-rearing was a bit extreme and rigid, creating a gap between parents and children. Rather than being a mother, I wished to understand and befriend my child."

To prevent children from acting foolishly, parents must learn how to understand and be a companion to their kids, she says.

They also need to be cautious about allowing their children to use social media, she says.

Nam believes that negative thoughts and feelings are normal when faced with major disappointments such as failing an exam, and every student will experience them some time or the other.

"But they are fleeting. Everything will improve over time and when you remain calm."

Ngoc says she felt more at ease after two months of psychiatric treatment.

"I hope life becomes easier for me and that my parents do not compare me with other kids."

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