You are not your studies

Last week a high school student from a private school in Islamabad jumped from the second floor of the school building. Luckily the young girl has survived the suicide attempt but is seriously injured. She is not the first student to attempt suicide. Being a therapist, I know multiple factors provoke anyone, especially young adults, to come to a point where they want to end their lives in utter desperation. In most cases, the nuclear family system and dysfunctional relationships are significant factors. If it’s an unhappy home, the child has experienced trauma be it undisclosed sexual abuse or a witness to an unhappy parental relationship, the chronic stress of it affects the mental health of the child. If there is no support at home regarding emotional holding, it contributes to the sense of loneliness in such children. That’s your classic introvert who feels he or she has no space to share her distress and builds up narratives and experiences intolerable feelings that can spill into, ‘What’s the point of life?’
It’s a fact that school is half of the life for the young one. It’s a significant influence on the mental health of a child. The educational system in Pakistan is designed in such a way that within school life, studies are the dominant theme, and by studies, I mean the culture of being tested all the time, be it monthly tests or yearly or final exams. Unlike school systems in the West per se, where the pressure of studies is exerted based on age level, we put the child in the grind from a very early age. A child going to primary school at age five will have homework which essentially means there is an element of accountability and the child is being conditioned by reward and punishment. The parents also experience the same pressure because of the educational culture. They pass the buck on to their children, making every other conversation about, ‘If you don’t study, you will fail in life.’ What does this mean? This means the children in Pakistan are in a constant fight mode that keeps their nervous system triggered, and if the school system is not enough pressure, most parents repeatedly tell their children,’ You are your studies.’ A child’s sense of identity is based on how much he succeeds as a student. I was one of those students, and I remember how miserable I was in my O levels with my father breathing down my neck all the time and repeatedly telling me that if I didn’t get As, I would never achieve anything. And well, I did not get a single A, and I think I managed to achieve something in life. I went back to school in my late 30s and have a career I am proud of.
We must stop traumatizing our children and making them believe that they will miss the opportunity to do well as adults unless they excel in school life. We should motivate and inspire them to reach their potential without rushing them and, more importantly, have their back despite bad grades. We must treat each child uniquely rather than apply the rule to all. We as parents turn a very significant time of the young one’s life, which is the end of high school, into a time of immense pressure and anxiety, provoking fear of failure. So many young adults come to therapy experiencing panic attacks. I am not suggesting that parents’ attitude towards studies is the only reason a student would try to end his life because if that were the case, most Pakistani school-going children would, God forbid, be at risk of self-harm. This parental attitude is ingrained in our cultural system, intergenerational, and taken as the norm. Most of us are resilient and used to such pressure, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pay the price for it. We don’t just develop low self-esteem or chronic anxiety but a constant fear of failure in our adult life. But yes, along with this pressure of studies, if a child is experiencing unhappiness and stress at home or parental inability to meet their emotional needs, it’s a severe problem.
To all the parents, please don’t tell your child that he is only his studies. Let him develop a sense of self that is beyond studies. A parent’s love should not be conditional; if it is, the child will turn into an adult who will place some condition on himself throughout his life. Your child is more than his studies.

The writer is a BACP (British Association For Counselling and Psychotherapy) accredited individual and couple psychotherapist based in Islamabad. She can be reached at zaramaqbool@yahoo.com or her official website.

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