School kids in Singapore are more stressed than their peers overseas. If your kid is feeling the pressure, here’s how to ﬁnd what's triggering his anxiety – and how to help.
Tummy aches, nausea, headaches and sleepless nights – the list of mysterious symptoms went on.
As each new school term approached, my cheerful, fun-loving daughter, Jubilee, would morph into a dour, anxious insomniac with vague health complaints.
Sensitive by nature, she took more than a year to get used to preschool and another six months to ease into Primary 1 without bawling. Now 11, she has, thankfully, learnt to better handle emotions and stress.
What do kids stress over, you might ask. School- related problems are often the main culprit. According to a study by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which polled over 500,000 students worldwide, Singapore students have higher levels of anxiety about their tests and grades than their peers in other countries.
In fact, 80 per cent of the children seen at Think Kids, which provides early intervention and developmental services for children with special needs, have some anxiety or emotional health issues due to school-related issues.
“More demands are placed on children’s academic performance, thus increasing their stress,” shares Pamela See, an educational and developmental psychologist at Think Psychological Services and Think Kids.
But academic performance is not the sole source of stress. It is not limited to exam periods and can be experienced at any point in the year, says Dr Ong Say How, senior consultant and chief of the Department of Developmental Psychiatry at Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
Other factors like relationship stress, like friendship issues, difﬁculties with school authorities and bullying play a part too, he adds.
With less time spent on developing their well being and physical health, kids end up being less resilient when they face stress, Pamela says.
My child’s triggers, as we found out later, included separation anxiety, the increasingly- frenetic work load and communication issues with her peers.
Here, Young Parents looks at the common triggers for school-related stress and ways to help your kid beat them.
He’s overscheduled and overstretched
Does your kid seem busier than you are? “Very often, teachers and parents may give additional assignments or homework without realising that the child already has a list of other tasks to complete,” Dr Ong says.
“When kids are over- stretched, they tend to get easily upset, frustrated and uncooperative. Finally, they may even give up,” he adds.
What you can do Before adding to your kid’s work or activity load, run a check on his existing assignments and deadlines. If your overscheduled kid has difﬁculties keeping up with mandatory school activities, speak to his teachers about it.
Every child reacts differently to stress and their thresholds may differ, Dr Ong says. But even the most driven kid needs to have a good balance of work and play.
Dr Ong suggests using the 3:1 rule. For every three learning or studying activities, reserve time for leisure or fun activities to strike a balance.
“This also prevents the child from feeling overwhelmed and developing fatigue,” he adds.
Not enough shut-eye
Besides plenty of love and support from you, getting enough shut-eye is one of the basic tenets of raising a healthy kid.
But more than one in three lower primary school pupils are not getting enough sleep, according to a 2014 survey by Nanyang Technological University undergraduates. And only 8 per cent of parents recognise that their child may have sleep problems.
Like adults, lack of sleep makes a cranky kid. Studies show that children who are sleep-deprived have trouble coping in school and are more likely to be irritable and easily frustrated.
What you can do Primary school kids typically require nine to 11 hours of sleep per day, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
This means lights out by 9.30am, if Junior must wake at 6.30am the next day.
Physical health affects mental well-being, so teach your kids to take care of their health by having a balanced and nutritious diet, regular exercise in addition to sufﬁcient sleep, Dr Ong says. Keeping kids healthy helps them weather stressful situations.
"When kids are stretched, they get upset easily, frustrated and uncooperative. Finally, they may even give up."
Your FOMO (fear of missing out)
Do you nag endlessly at Junior to study, compare his grades with his peers’ or siblings’ and wring your hands every time he sits for an exam? If so, you are contributing to your kid’s stress.
Pamela shares that many parents report that they are anxious or stressed during their children’s examinations.
“Some treat their child’s academic performance as their own, thus placing undue pressure on him or her. If your child thinks that his academic performance determines how they be liked or treated by their parents, this would increase their stress levels,” she says.
What you can do For one, keep your expectations realistic and stop comparing your child with other kids. Recognise your child’s effort and not just his academic results, says Dr Ong.
Find ways to communicate with better, like talking about your day over dinnertime. This should start from a young age and not only when your kid has problems or reaches a certain age, says Dr Ong.
Being involved in regular recreational activities with your kids, like a sport or playing computer games, can create opportunities for your kids to talk about their problems, says Dr Ong.
Once you establish good parent-child communication, it becomes less difﬁcult to engage kids in tough conversations, he adds. Remember not to jump to conclusions too quickly or dispense advice too readily, says Dr Ong.
You’re not coping very well with stress yourself
Do you spank or smack your kid whenever you’re pissed off with him? If you’re showing poor coping strategies when you’re angry or stressed, kids learn that it is okay to do the same, like hit, when they are angry or stressed, Pamela says.
“While this (hitting) may work in the short term, children will outgrow the fear of being hit in the long run. As they grow older, some may even hit back,” she explains.
Conﬂict at home can affect kids. For instance, some children may refuse to go to school because they want to stay at home to ensure that their parents are safe, Dr Ong shares.
What you can do Watch your own stress levels. And try not to burden or involve your kids with your own problems, says Dr Ong.
Pamela offers the following self-care tips for you:
• Take care of yourself and other relationships
• Take time out for relaxation
• Find support from other friends and family members if you feel overwhelmed
• Pursue your own interest that does not involve your kids
An undetected learning difficulty
Every kid is different and learns at different rate. But an undetected learning difﬁculty could be seriously stressful, given the fast-paced curriculum and routine.
If your kid was struggling in kindergarten, he will most likely face some challenges with learning-related tasks like reading during his early primary years, Pamela says. But this does not mean he has a learning difﬁculty.
What you can do Most kids learn to read by the age of six, some earlier, if they were placed in reading classes earlier, says Pamela. If your child is struggling even after exposure to formal education for some time, consider taking him to a formal assessment by a registered psychologist, she says.
You could also alert the school so that allied educators can be roped in to support your child. Most importantly, be supportive of his learning needs and work as a team to help him cope, Pamela says.
Keep your expectations realistic. Recognise your kid’s effort, not just his grades.
The red flags
While it is important for kids to learn to handle stress and face up to challenges, seek professional help if you notice signiﬁcant changes in your child’s behaviour, says Dr Ong Say How, senior consultant and chief of the Department of Developmental Psychiatry at Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
LOOK OUT FOR SIGNS OF STRESS:
• Becomes more withdrawn
• Loses interest in activities he used to enjoy
• Becomes aggressive
• Seems emotional, depressed, moody, irritable or scared most of the time
• Loss of appetite
• No longer sleeps well
• Refuses to attend school or grades plummet for no apparent reason
• Expresses abnormal and negative thoughts such as suicide
Where to seek help
The ﬁrst person of contact should be the child’s school counsellor, who typically has access to the reach (Response, Early intervention and Assessment in Community mental Health) teams led by IMH, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and with Social Service Organisations, says Dr Ong.
• Tinkle Friend (for primary school students) Tel: 1800-2744-788
• Samaritans of Singapore Tel: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours)
• Institute of Mental Health’s mental health helpline Tel: 6389-2222