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Super-stressed teens

Sandeep Saha is up by six every morning - seven days a week. He has to make it to his tuition by 7 a.m. By the time he gets home from tuition, he barely has enough time to get ready and snatch a quick lunch before rushing off to catch his school bus. He is back from school by 7.30 p.m.

Another hurried meal and it is time for his next tuition, from where he returns home by 11 p.m. But the day is not yet over for Sandeep, who has to force his eyes open in order to complete any homework that might be due the next day. By the time his head finally hits the pillow, it's usually past midnight. But his alarm will go off in a matter of hours.

A very long day, indeed, for someone who is just sixteen. Unfortunately, Sandeep is not alone. Most senior-school boys and girls these days have hectic schedules that resemble the tight-schedule of a busy corporate head. It's like being perpetually on a roller-coaster ride with pressures from all sides - school, tuition, debate, sports, projects, homework... they are expected to excel in all these and more.

Willingly or unwillingly, they submit themselves to this rigorous grind in order to emerge as well-rounded individuals - the kind that colleges and companies open their doors for. Who says teen years are fun times? Not any more.

Long gone are the carefree days when students went to schools and colleges with a certain degree of relaxation - leisurely savouring a wide variety of learning experiences. Today, we have a generation panicky for success. The vast syllabus and the stiff competition leave very little room for experimenting, and very little time for fun. Or even sleep, for that matter.

Ask Sandeep, who confesses that he is starving for some sleep. “Ever since I've come to XII, I've forgotten what it is to get a good night's rest. I barely get 4-5 hours of sleep on most days - the rest of my time goes in attending school or tuitions,” says a weary Sandeep. No wonder he feels tired all the time.

Even his weekends are spent in attending tuitions, completing assignments or preparing for an upcoming test, leaving him with very little time to rest or unwind. “Things like listening to music, going for a movie, or even watching television have now become things of the past for me. How I wish there were more than seven days in a week!” laments Sandeep.

Today, more and more teens are finding themselves trapped in the clammy grips of the future and feeling the pressure to excel not just academically, but also in extracurricular activities. Who is to be blamed for this unfortunate situation - the teachers for assigning too much work, the parents for pushing their children too far or the students themselves for driving themselves too hard?

“They are a group under siege - pressurised by parents and teachers and driven by their own ambitions to excel,” says Nirmala Mangalat, an English teacher at St. Mary's High School, Dubai. She feels that much of this pressure, however, is self-induced. As a teacher dealing with teens, she has been privy to the hopes and fears of many of her young students. According to her, the weak students usually know their limitations and can handle occasional failures.

More often than not, it is the top ranking students who drive themselves too hard. “They set themselves unrealistic goals and end up with feelings of inadequacy and negative self-image, when they fail to achieve those goals. However much we tell them to relax, they cannot. I want to tell all such children that life is full of setbacks and we cannot always get what we want. If you do your best, that is what really counts,” advises Nirmala.

But then, can we really blame these youngsters for setting goals that are too high? They, after all, live in a fiercely competitive world, where their entire future depends upon how well they fare in the Board Examinations. The grade fever is contagious. When you see others around you aiming for mark sheets studded with A's, you too join the race, even if the effort leaves you gasping for breath. Unfortunately, the race is not about how well you run, but about how well you beat those who run with you.

Such cutthroat competition can be tough on teenagers - many go to pieces when they start lagging behind others. This may be one reason why Navin Mangalat, 16, has decided not to join the race. “I've decided not to compete so hard. I don't set myself unrealistic goals, because I know what I can do and what I cannot. I'm not exactly thrilled when I don't get good marks, but I try not to let such things get to me,” admits Navin.

A 12th grader, Navin is passionate about computers and wants to be a Computer Engineer. However, he also knows that in a world full of computer-savvy teens - all aspiring for a handful of available seats, his chances of specialising in Computer Engineering may not be so bright. He is therefore mentally prepared to pursue other fields of engineering. Yet, for someone who claims that he does not compete hard, Navin works quite hard. He sits till 3 a.m. every night to “do homework and study”. He is already attending tuition in one subject and is considering going for another subject very soon. According to him, “in today's world, you cannot survive without tuitions.”

While stress is a normal part of life, too much stress makes you irritable and grumpy, especially because you're already going through many unsettling physical and emotional changes inside you. Often school-pressures work on you. You become prone to experience “blues” or feel “down in the dumps”.

It's not unusual for teens to become confrontational with their peers, teachers or parents. Sandeep, a very calm and refined youngster admits to going through such tension-filled phases. “When I'm not able to live up to the expectations of others, I feel dejected. Even though, I try very hard not to let out my frustration on others - there are times when things just go beyond my control, and I end up saying things that I don't mean. And then there are consequences to face!!! At such times, you feel that life isn't fair,” rues Sandeep.

Navin too, despite his cheerful and charming ways, often feels confrontational under duress. “Since I don't get a chance to confront those who are mainly responsible for this stress, my parents get the brunt of it,” confesses he.

One thing that most teens find odious is comparison - they are often expected to meet the high academic standards of successful siblings or cousins. “Having cousins who got into the IIT or won prestigious scholarships puts a lot of pressure on us, as we're also expected to do the same, whether we've the capacity to do so or not,” says Sandeep.

Parents, of course, mean well - for they are only trying to steer you towards a secure future. They make incredible sacrifices so that their children can attend prestigious colleges. Sandeep acknowledges this fact when he comments, “Parents want the best for their children. If they pressurise us to work hard, it is for our own good - so that we can achieve something worthwhile in life. They want us to fulfill all their dreams by giving us everything they were not fortunate enough to get. I think they have a point.”

However, such pressures may lead you to pursue studies with joyless tenacity just to please your parents. Parents, teachers, and students - all are caught in the web of an educational system that places great emphasis on learning by rote. Most parents, educators and students feel that a thorough revision of the existing syllabi, textbooks, teaching methods and evaluation-system is an urgent necessity. We need a system that encourages creativity, develops curiosity, inculcates values, and imparts a thirst for knowledge.

You, on your part, must learn strategies to cope better. The stress need not get you down. The real key to relieving stress is gaining control over things that make you tense. Organise yourself. Set aside a regular study-schedule and do not let phone calls or television interrupt that schedule. Find time for leisure activities too. Mark in a calendar the days on which all your assignments are due so that you can plan ahead. If possible, study with friends. Never skip meals or forego sleep - a good night's sleep is a critical for the brain's ability to learn and memorise.

Above all, savour your years in school and college as an enjoyable learning experience and not as a grim preparation for the future. If you're in a race, then put your best foot forward, but remember - it is all right to trip and fall sometimes. Defeat is as instructive as victory. It is not the end of the world.

By Chandana Roy

Courtesy: Telelife January 2002

Kids and Teens(Previous Features)

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