The 'crucial' years

Posted on November 25, 2019 at 9:55 AM

No sooner does a child reach the 9th standard (or sometimes even earlier!) than the parents go into a familiar ‘anxious about child’s future’ mode. Whispers of “board exams”, “crucial year” and “sacrifices for the future” begin to fill the air, and discussions about tuitions, training institutes for professional courses, and expenses involved replaces ordinary conversation at home. Most privileges, entertainment and physical activities of the child are cut off, and the child is made to follow an exhausting routine of early morning special classes, regular school, post school tuitions (or coaching classes), and finally tons of homework from everywhere. The tired child finally manages to crawl into bed late into the night, but early the next day the routine repeats. Sundays and holidays offer no respite, and they are resigned to this punishing schedule for every day of two to three years, or more. To make matters worse, some children are packed off to residential coaching centres, many a times in another state a long distance away, where they have to endure the added misery of poor living conditions, bad food, homesickness and even physical punishment!

As a doctor looking after children for the last 27 years, and one who has been seeing and treating an increasing number of teens for psychosomatic (stress-related) symptoms, I want to stand up for the scores of children quietly undergoing these impractical and potentially harmful schedules at present, and in future. The long-term effects of these regimens on the physical and mental wellbeing of the child can be profoundly detrimental.

I remember that my friends and I had to do some hard studying to do too, and had some privileges taken away during our 10th and 12th exams, but then we also had enough time for sleep, exercise and outings to theatres and restaurants. No day was complete without a game of cricket or football after school, and regular sessions of STP (Summane Time Pass) and visits to CTR or Rice Bowl for Masala Dosa or Fried Rice, in between study sessions!

Parents tend to think that tuitions and coaching classes are the only options available to ensure success in examinations and “ to stay ahead of the game", partly because of fearmongering by schools and coaching institutes, and peer pressure from other parents. As a parent, I fully understand this anxiety, and the desire to see their children do well in life. I agree that it’s a different world out there now, but then the requirements for success in examinations, or for that matter, in any chosen future career, have remained the same. Topmost on the list remain good communication and interpersonal skills, a healthy and relaxed mind and body, and empathy and compassion for all creatures. They also need to learn how to handle both success and failure, and how to help themselves as well as others in times of need. Sadly, very few of today’s schools and coaching centres tackle these vital issues. The overemphasis on marks and outcome, combined with overwork and lack of social exposure of these young and impressionable minds, make them ill prepared for the realities of the world that they are so eager to join and succeed in. They forget how to have fun as teenagers should, and their childhood passes by quickly without them learning the essential interpersonal and other life skills that games and peer interactions will teach, which can be a disadvantage in the future career of the child.

Children in the late teens dread mainly 2 scenarios, one, suffering ridicule amidst their friends and peers, and two, disappointing or not meeting expectations of their parents and society. All their stress is derived mainly from trying to avoid these two outcomes, and not from the fear of examinations or worry about the future. Some children may be able to cope, but many find the very thought of failure, combined with the added effects of lack of sleep and exercise, and the seeming endless volumes they have to study increasingly stressful. This inability to handle stress can manifest as symptoms like inability to sleep, increased heart beats, stomach cramps, vomiting, headache etc, and these children end up taking multiple rounds of medicines for them without much relief. Feelings of hopelessness and desperation can soon set in, and these children often resort to the extreme measures that we keep reading and hearing about in the media.

To ensure your child’s wellbeing and a favourable outcome in examination, here are some actions that you can undertake as a parent:

• Firstly, try not to overly emphasize the importance of board exams and choosing of a future career. This only makes the child anxious and insecure, and prevents the child from fulfilling his/her true potential.

• Find out what your child is good at, and guide your child towards a career that the child may excel and be happy in. Many centres now offer career guidance and counselling, and parents would do well to make use of these facilities. Forcing a child into an unsuitable career line, will relegate the child to a lifetime of struggle and boredom

• Some parents are of the opinion that “my child is a weak student” or “he/she is not intelligent” and hence requires tuitions and special classes. It is common knowledge today that many of yesteryears toppers have the back-benchers of their class as their bosses! A so called “weak student” can be bestowed with one or more of 9 different kinds of intelligence (Logical-Mathematical, Linguistic, Visual-Spatial, Naturalist, Musical, Existential, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Inter-personal and Intra-personal), and thankfully today’s world offers excellent career opportunities for utilizing each one of them, and an enormous array of careers to excel in.

• Create a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere at home, that is conducive to learning. Avoid unnecessary interference and nagging about the study schedule and progress. Make rules, but be a little flexible in the implementation, accommodating the inherent rebellious nature of the teen.

• Ensure adequate physical activity. A child should have at least an hour of exercise every day (be it walking, dancing, cycling, swimming, outdoor games etc.) even during the examination period. It is during these periods of physical activity that the brain rests, and rejuvenates. A relaxed brain is capable of retaining and understanding more than a tired and overworked brain!

• See that your child gets the minimum required sleep every day. Most parents would be surprised to hear that a 16-year-old child requires 8 and a half hours of sleep each night to keep the mind rested and healthy. Occasional all-nighters are allowed, but when sleep deprivation occurs regularly, the sleep deficit tends to accumulate, and effect the memory, comprehension and oratory ability of the child.

• Each one-hour session of study should be followed by a 5 - 10 min period of relaxation, where the child just relaxes his eyes, mind and body to ease away the built-up tension. Yoga, music, reading of newspapers, small walks etc. should be encouraged, but electronic media and eating in between meals is best avoided.

• Make sure that no junk and high calorie food is stocked in the house. Studying children tend to munch on snacks unconsciously, and put on unwanted weight which they find very difficult to shed later.

Avoid comparing your child with friends and siblings. Acknowledge the child’s potential and limitations, and encourage the child to put the best possible effort into studies, without worrying about the outcome of the examination. Parental attitude of ‘Que Sera Sera’ (whatever will be, will be) may be least stressful on the child’s psyche, and a reassurance in times of self-doubt and panic.

Keep communication channels open with your child. Make it a point to speak (non-patronisingly) to the child at least once a day for a few minutes. Assuring the child of your unconditional love and support, whatever be the outcome in the examinations, will remove a huge burden off the child’s shoulders. Again, make sure you prepare them for any outcome, adverse or favourable.

• It is absolutely essential that all parents keep a close watch for unusual behaviour in their children, like becoming quiet and withdrawn, unprovoked crying, weight loss, destructive anger, night terrors etc. which are tell-tale signs of emotional and psychological distress. Seeking help at this stage will go a long way in preventing many unfortunate and avoidable outcomes.

• In such extreme situations, parents would do well to remember that deferment is always an option available. A period of time off for relaxation and introspection can help a stressed child to gather his/her wits and thoughts together, and leisurely decide their future course of action.

Our children are our future, our wealth, our everything. Nothing is more important than their happiness and their health. A confident and adventurous child can eke out a successful career in any field, and as parents, our only job is to point them in the right direction. For, like Khalil Gibran famously wrote nearly a hundred years ago,

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them,

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday”





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