Protecting innocence: keeping stress at bay

Stress has been declared as the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organisation. But, intriguingly and interestingly, it is an ‘epidemic’ that commonly goes ‘overlooked,’ because “people don’t see it as a legitimate illness” though paradoxically “Stress is ubiquitous in modern life.”

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Schooling phase is one of the most vibrant and memorable experiences in an adolescent’s life. It is school days, that a student enjoys with the scintillating and vibrant environment, makes lifetime friends and enjoys the various academic and co-curricular activities, which enrich and nurture and thereby prepare the students for adulthood. But ironically, from a closer perspective, the school students encounter number of challenges in day-to-day life, which in turn contribute to stress and if not dealt, timely and adequately, can only escalate and hamper their academic performance, emotional and social well being.

The stress factors…

The inception of the 21st century is characterised by the rise in globalization, which has affected all parts of contemporary life. One major aspect which has undergone substantial change due to globalization is education. In a rat race to succeed over others’ successes, escalating misplaced parental aspirations, matrix of confused educators vis-a-vis fast changing pedagogy together with government mandates, present genre of students are exposed to considerable amount of stress. To add to gravity is the fact that such facts and circumstances are faced by child when s(he) is undergoing teenage when a lot of biological, physical, mental and emotional changes are happening.

Any classification for students’s stress defy specificity and clarity due to appended complexity. For teens, the list of possible stress is not comprehensive at all — from puberty to family problems to social media to road rage to criminal offences — but it typically starts in school. School going youth are dealing with anxiety around their relationships, which is often exacerbated by social media. They grapple with issues about how to fit in with peers, bullying, relationships, etc.

Major stressors…

Broadly major stressors for students are classified as Academic Stressors, Social stressors and Pecuniary stressors, Physiological Stressors and, Psychological Stressors.

Academic stressors are the sources of stress experienced by students during examination, handling academic workload, disagreement with parents, teachers, peers; unsatisfactory academic performance; rising self-parental-teacher aspiration; lack of interest in a particular subject and teacher’s punishment. To worsen the situation, in today’s age of Artificial intelligence, stress is doubled by the fact that academic achievement is considered as the sole criterion for evaluating a student’s performance.

Physiological stressors include illness, injuries, hormonal fluctuations, and inadequate sleep or nutrition.

Social stressors not only originate from the fact that with the progress of human civilisation and increasing plurality of our society, people need to play more roles; but it also includes – differential treatment by parents, teachers, peers; adjustment on school campus; social events, etc.

Pecuniary stressors are the stress attributes experienced by students caused by various factors like family having money problem or facing financial crisis, and managing monthly expenses. In teenage, students are mostly concerned about their physical appearances than about other aspects.

Psychological stressors are caused by illness or surgery, unhappy childhood, poor diet, loneliness, exam pressure, low self esteem, excess anger or irritation, personality and attitude problem. Negative self-talk, catastrophizing, and perfectionism all contribute to increased stress. Families with constant conflicts are characterised by a lack of parent-child communication and in-depth understanding of each other’s expectations. The control or punishment imposed further increase the psychological stress on children. More so, in today’s society, students spend as much time at school as they do at other places such as home; consequently some other, often overlooked, factors that influence “stress factor” for students are thermal comfort factors, security, air temperature, humidity and student’s clothes and physical activity. Further, in present epoch of information revolution, an uncontrolled, irrational and unsupervised access of student to technology can lead to serious situation of child comparing to others to a sometimes obsessive degree, and also means it’s difficult to truly escape unhealthy interactions that could previously be left at the school gate.

Every child manifests

Every child reveals signs and actions about his mental wellbeing. Some of the messages and signals clearly convey to “ignorant adult world” that they’re feeling nervous and anxious, or are irritable or angry, beyond what an adult would think is typical teen behaviour. Other signs include procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, losing sleep, changes in their appetite — either eating too much or too little, getting sick more frequently and becoming unable to do tasks that they could before. Some physiological symptoms such as headache are signals of mental overload. Other signals include fatigue, depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction with certain interpersonal relations, and change of the current sleeping habit and drastic gain/loss of body weight. Setting high goals, being a perfectionist and comparing the self with others and self degradation may all cause stress and result in depression among students.

Rising incidences of school-going youth indulging in suicide, substance abuse and/or dependence, violence, serious criminal and commission do indicate that something is grossly wrong in our society — a society that proclaims to be evolving, developing and more proactive for human rights and gender equity. An unfortunate fact — writ large on the face!

Combating helicopter parenting

Non-doctrinal research conducted by us over five years in different school systems reveals that the mental health and well-being of school students is significantly worse than it was ten years ago, suggesting a worrying trend that schools and parents need to address. ‘Over-involved,’ ‘abnormally concerned’ parents are trying to do everything for their children, taking on too much responsibility on their behalf, and as a result child severely lacks confidence. Number of students — who are unable to stand up to pressure – are rising in geometric progression because parents tend to helicopter parenting and educators are getting dictated by such ‘bonafide diktat’ in pursuance of sacrosanct mission of ‘pleasing the parent’ — newly evolved consumer entity.

Role of educators

Educators can help the child by using evidence-based strategies to build mental health literacy and encouraging other teachers and counsellors to be more proactive in getting help early for children who may be anxious or depressed. They must ensure “a whole-of-school, zero-tolerance approach” to bullying and social seclusion. Educators need to play an effective role in sensitising both parents and students in regard to cyber-ethics and processes because in present world, student stress is often compounded by a “constantly connected culture” fixated on smartphones and social media.

Joint responsibility — parents & teachers

Adults can help teenage youth by “being available” to talk, whenever they want. It’s so important for teens to have at least one trusted adult in their circle who they can talk to and determine if this is a blip or something more severe. Making oneself available to “reach out to a child” is the most effective and healthiest solution. It even helps to be proactive. Adults can also help them with good sleep hygiene, like turning off the screens late at night. Active involvement of adults will make child active, like working out or taking walks or participating in sports. We can help them find a work and fun balance. If everything is about school or work, and they don’t have time to hang out with friends or get alone time, that can create greater anxiety. So, let them hang out with their friends as well. Yet another important strategy is — Have your teen focus on his/her strengths.

Stress is often the result of feeling trapped and overwhelmed by the problems in our lives. Students are sometimes immobilised by their inability to see a positive outcome for a difficult situation. By teaching them to solve problems one step at a time, we can provide them with a useful resource to deal with stress.

Lastly, the most important duty of Adult World is to “recognize” stress and anxiety as a legitimate illness.

Ashi Gaur, M.Sc., B.Ed., LL.B, is an educator for last 17 years with administrative experience of deputy head teacher, Examination Incharge and CCE Coordinator. She had a cherished innings at Mayo College, Ajmer where she added new dimension to pastoral care and her innings at St Mary’s Convent School & Sophia School, Ajmer kept her abreast with changing trends of pedagogy, emerging parental aspiration, evolving teenage behavioural pattern and rapid transition of pastoral care. She has worked upon Ethical Curriculum for schools and submitted to MHRD and is also on Accreditation panel of Central Board of Secondary Education. She is a facilitator in reaching out to student’s personal issues in today’s modern era of gross perplexity and escalating pressures.

Ritwiz Gaur, B.Sc. (Honors), M.A. (English), B.Ed., LL.M. (Gold Medal), is a school leader, researcher and passionate educator for last odd 18+ years. He posess a huge experience of various pedagogic and technology based workshops and has also undertaken doctrinal and non-doctrinal researches. He has been felicitated at National and State level for his scholarly articles. He is on Accreditation panel of Central Board of Secondary Education. He has worked upon new dimension in pastoral care, pedagogy and ethical curriculum. He has taken up mission against “Substance Abuse” in youth and had agitated a movement in schools and colleges, “A Healthy Me, is Drug Free”. Educators can help the child by using evidence-based strategies to build mental health literacy and encouraging other teachers and counsellors to be more proactive in getting help early for children who may be anxious or depressed.