Shefali Srinivas
Wed, Jan 09, 2008
Mind Your Body, The Straits Times
Parents, don't push kids over the edge

A Straits Times report last week said that suicides among young children here had dropped significantly in the past few years.

None occurred in the first 10 months of last year.

Statistics show that in 2000 and 2001, Singapore had one of the highest child suicide rates in the world - with six children between the ages of 10 and 14 taking their lives each year.

Doctors attribute falling suicide rates to increasing awareness among parents and teachers of emotional distress in children.

A study by psychiatrists here, of 2,000 schoolchildren in 2003 and 2004, examined which children were most at risk of mental illness.

The study points to one thing: that distress over falling short of their parents' or teachers' expectations can push vulnerable kids over the edge, precipitating breakdowns, depression and even attempts at suicide.

A Singapore mother who walked into her daughter's room one day, just before the girl's final examinations, witnessed a disturbing spectacle that left her badly shaken.

Her teenage daughter had emptied a bottle of glue over her own head. She was furiously rubbing one of her textbooks over her head and repeating to herself, "Get in, get in, get in."

Exam stress

The girl was hospitalised and Raffles Hospital psychologist Danny Ng, who treated her later, said it was among the more extreme cases of examination stress he had seen.

Mr Ng said the girl's parents were also highly distressed.

"I remember the father telling me with tears in his eyes, 'I just want my daughter back, I don't really care about the exams'," said Mr Ng.

As the new school year begins, parents have the opportunity to forge relationships with their children that can help them withstand the demands of academic excellence, peer pressure and intense competition in school.

Mr Ng said one of the key problems is the Asian emphasis on education as a means to success.

"It is important for the child to know that academic performance is not tied to love from their parents," he said.

But for many children, this is the equation that causes stress and anxiety.

Mr Ng suggests three ways in which parents can redefine their expectations.

> View education as a marathon.

"Think long term and you will see that it's better to motivate them from within, rather than from outside, with threats and so on."

> Create a sense of ownership and passion for learning.

"This also takes longer. If you take a profile of scholars, you will see that they developed a passion and were encouraged to pursue and explore it."

> Make it clear that academic success is not the only kind of success that is valuable and that the parents' love is not tied to how the child performs in school.

Mr Ng, himself a father of two boys, said there is no one size to fit all when it comes to parenting.

"Each child needs a different approach. We have to tell my older son to slow down while the younger one needs pressure. Parents need to find the right buttons for motivation," he said.

Doctors and experts in child behavioural health agree on one thing - that it is important for parents to "know" the child and respond accordingly.

However, there are cases where the best of parents are left perplexed by a child's increasing anxiety or perfectionism.

Dr Clarice Hong, a child psychiatrist at Raffles Hospital, pointed out that some children are innate worriers and that there is a perfectionistic personality that has nothing to do with parents at all.

"Particularly in young girls, this often manifests as an eating disorder," she said.

Dr Hong often sees children suffering from anxiety that causes them to blank out during examinations.

"It's not that these children are lazy or not working hard. Their anxiety is so great that they genuinely cannot function. They need help," she said.

Mr Ng said common symptoms of stress among children include talking and muttering to themselves constantly, insomnia, panic attacks and breathing difficulties.

In such cases, parents are also advised to reframe expectations of their child, and to emphasise that the child has strengths that are not necessarily academic in nature.

"When parents are able to highlight creativity and attributes other than grades, it can help the child feel more secure," Dr Hong said.

More often than not, with both parents working, Dr Hong feels that some kids fixate on earning good grades as a way of getting attention and affection.

Child psychiatrist Daniel Fung thinks people just need to be "good enough" parents. The priority, he said, should be to make the child feel "worthwhile and loved".

"This comes from a good and secure relationship that is not based on external factors; a love that is unconditional," he said. However, this does not exclude criticism.

"Children need both these things. But there is good praise and good criticism and the communication channels should always be open," he added.

Good praise lets a child know what he did right and how it makes the parent feel. Good criticism informs the child what he did wrong, why it's wrong and how it could have been done differently.

"Have a conversation. Instead of merely saying "good boy", explain why the action was good.

"For instance, you're good because you helped me with my shopping bags and that allowed me to finish loading the car quickly."

Another important component, said Dr Fung, is the development of independence and the capacity to take responsibility.

In fact, Dr Fung advocates that parents engineer a sort of "successful failure" that kids can overcome and learn that it's not the end of the world.

"Getting kids involved in sports early is a great way to do this. Participating in games allows them to fail without huge consequences. It's of great value," Dr Fung said.

Research over the last decade has proved the old adage true - that all work and no play makes for dull children.

Dr Fung is a firm believer in what he calls "grandmother's wisdom".

"There's a lot of talk about spending "quality" time with your kids," he said. "But all you really need to do is to spend time with your kids and really get to know them."

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