WOUND UP: Pressure to excel, coupled with the turmoil of puberty and exposure to bad influences, is a recipe for a meltdown
NOT too long ago, the only childhood afflictions parents worried about were measles, hyperactivity and an unhealthy obsession with the TV. Now, that list has expanded to include something far more ominous -- mental health problems.
The latest National Health Morbidity Survey revealed that the number of children with poor mental health is rising, with 20 per cent found to be suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. Children from as young as 5 were already exhibiting tell-tale symptoms, the survey noted. It was worrying enough for some to propose a Mental Health Awareness Week in schools and for more regular screenings.
Expectations to perform in school are higher these days. Pic by Mohd Asri Saifuddin Mamat
While the results of the survey are disconcerting, are they at all surprising? Children are, after all, growing up in a world that is evolving too fast for even adults to catch up with. A tremendous amount of pressure is exerted on them to overcome, to perform and to excel.
We don't really need an academic survey to tell us that many of our children are under extreme pressure and emotional distress. Conversations with parents are often enough to leave one with a churning gut and extra strands of grey. The Education Ministry may have reviewed the way in which students are assessed in a bid to make the education system less exam-oriented, but this has not made parents any less competitive.
"I've sent my son to a high-performance sekolah menengah kebangsaan that specialises in several niches and offers French. What about you? Oh, you just sent him to the secondary school next door?" a parent raised her eyebrow at me at the start of the school year last week.
"My husband and I work but both of us raised successful kids... ALL of them are doctors and are practising in the country and abroad. Excellence can be within your reach, too, if you aspire for it and push your children towards it," another parent shared recently while other less exemplary parental role models nodded and reflected guiltily on all the hours they allowed their own children on the Xbox 360.
Are such fervid quests for eminence healthy? The pressure of having to excel, coupled with the turmoil of puberty and exposure to negative influences via the Internet and their peers is surely a potent recipe for a mental meltdown.
As it is, children here are fast catching up with their western counterparts and have "graduated" from bullying to rape, robbery and murder -- all manifestations of a troubled mind.
A father, who accompanied his Year One son to the school toilet last week, was appalled to see an expletive emblazoned on the wall next to the name of an infamous Japanese-Canadian adult video star. That a 12-year-old or perhaps a tot even younger was familiar with the name etched on the wall was enough to give the father sleepless nights.
Remember the rape and sodomy of a 7-year-old girl in Kulim, Kedah by four boys just a few years older not too long ago? Such cases hardly cause a flutter these days.
What's crucial in the face of this onslaught is for the adults -- parents and teachers -- to be armed with the skills to talk to today's youngsters.
It is parental guidance that determines whether a child grows up to be a functioning member of society.
But before that, parents themselves need to know it's no longer fashionable or even acceptable to be "tiger" mums or dads.
"Helicopter" parenting (like helicopters, these parents are always hovering overhead, paying extremely close attention to a child's experience and problems, particularly at school) is also no longer in trend, with experts agreeing that these rapidly changing times call for parents who are characterised as "supportive" and "easygoing".
In this regard, it is heartening to note that some kids are already striving to break out of the tight cocoon spun by well-meaning adults.
Not all continue to aspire to be doctors, a profession of choice drummed into their heads from toddlerhood.
Medicine, which used to be No. 1, has plummeted down the list of desirous careers among children based on another recent survey. The bad news is that the majority now want to be actors or models.
Chok Suat Ling is New Sunday Times Editor NST Opinion Columnist 09/01/2014