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Why Your Child is Not Thriving and How to Turn it Around

Social research in Asia suggests that our kids are under more pressure than ever, and the negative consequences are very real.

A recent prospectus study of Hong Kong schools anxiety revealed that 3 in 10 students in secondary school and 1 in 5 primary school aged children suffer from anxiety.

One of the most underestimated factors that contributes to thriving in our youth and protects against anxiety is optimal sleep. The recommended number of hours of sleep in primary school aged children is 11-13 hours and for teens 10-11 hours every night. In Asia, 6.5 is the average number of hours children sleep each night, and this is consistent with the sleep patterns I see in the student-athletes who first visit my office for mental skills training.

In a society that places great emphasis on academic excellence from a young age, sleep is competing against hectic schedules.

Presently, 97% of students in Singapore receive after school tuition. Four in 10 parents with pre-school children now purchase extra academic coaching; for some as young as 5 years of age. Education officials continue to maintain that tuition is not necessary. Parents agree – but send their children for it anyway, because everyone else does.

Research released last month following children in primary school in Singapore from age 7 to 11, found that children with pushy parents were at least two times more likely to develop high levels of self-criticalness compared with others and face a greater risk of developing anxiety and depression.

A valid comment from a parent stated, “In Singapore, the pressure to do well starts early. Parents have no choice but to set high expectations of their kids’ performance.”

Setting high standards for your children can actually raise their self-confidence, however, if you also place great importance on their success, then anxiety and fear of failure will also rise.

In this article, I will share insights from my work with student-athletes that can help them thrive when the pressure is on and how you can make all the difference in shaping healthy high achievement in these challenging times.

There exists two distinct climates you can create for your child in their achievement striving.

When a parent is focused on self-oriented outcomes this has the effect of enhancing the student-athlete’s feeling of control over their performance and creates less evaluation apprehension. This focus establishes what we call a ‘mastery climate’ where effort, enjoyment, and learning skills is emphasised, and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to grow. On the flip side, a ‘performance climate’ is built when parents base the criterion for success around the comparison to others, praising winning even when effort is lacking, and mistakes are viewed as unacceptable.

From my assessment of many school aged children in sport, if your child welcomes competing against seemingly stronger opponents, but feels threatened against equally matched or less skilled peers, then it is highly likely they define their sport experience from the stand-point of a performance climate.

While the intensity level of parental pressure within these two climates might be similar, there are two vastly different forms of pressure being established with very different outcomes.

Researcher’s examining these two distinct climates studied anxiety levels over the course of a season in 300 US youth swimmers ranging in age from 9 to 14 years. The study found that anxiety significantly increased from the start to the end of the season in those athletes who perceived parental pressure to be high and with a ‘performance focus’. But that’s not surprising.

What is more interesting is that the study also found that athletes with the lowest levels of anxiety throughout the season perceived parental pressure to be high in intensity but with a mastery climate focus.

The message here is that high parental pressure is not always harmful, particularly when the focus of your engagement in your child’s sporting activities directs their focus and motivation to the process of their performance.

So what does a focus on the process actually look like?

“Start with changing what you look for in your child’s performances and your choice of feedback.”

Watch for Positive Behaviours NOT Mistakes
I can tell you with 100% confidence that a child as young as 8 years of age can recall all their mistakes they made on the football pitch in their last match or in their race. What children are NOT so good at picking up is the frequency of their positive behaviours.

If you really want to create a mastery climate for your child, next time you are at their match, rather than observing for errors, start to note how many times you see them taking charge after a mistake, encouraging a team-mate, or displaying positive body language.

This is the sort of feedback they will welcome after a match without the typical stone-wall effect. You can start to create new goals around mastering behaviours that actually lead to top results, instead of shaping a focus on avoiding errors that leads to anxiety and poor skill execution.

Create Consistency in Feedback
I hear too often from student-athletes that when they perform poorly the performance review time with parents can take hours, and in contrast when they perform great the review starts and finishes with the question, “where would you like to go for dinner?”

This pattern is counter-productive and perpetuates a performance climate/results only focus that does not promote thriving and engagement win or lose.

Keep review sessions consistent in content regardless of performance.

Using a strengths-coaching approach consider the GOOD, BETTER, HOW method.

GOOD: What are 3 things you did well today?

BETTER: What is 1 thing you can improve?

HOW: How will you about doing this in training?

Rather than telling your child what they should have done, asking questions can create feelings of resourcefulness and self-reliance.

Optimal sleep habits promotes time management
In some cases, when student-athletes visit me to learn how to improve their performance in study or sport, we tackle sleep deprivation first. Increased hours in sleep can directly impact focus, mood, and energy. More sleep requires setting an earlier sleep time which is often met with resistance by families.

The main concern with sleeping earlier is that their child will not complete their homework. However, most students spend a number of hours procrastinating on these tasks every day and it is not uncommon for teens to finally knuckle down on their homework at 10pm only to finish after mid-night, actually completing on average no more than 2-3 hours of work.

When a target sleep time is set as a rule and not an option your child becomes accountable for getting their homework done earlier. Extending bed-time to complete work is no longer the typical solution. There are occasional times when large projects on top of exams do require extra time, but a new target sleep time can be applied on most days. Increased sleep coupled with study techniques to enhance productivity can pave the way for higher achievement in sport and studies.

There is no doubt the social climate our children must negotiate is highly pressurising, but you can have a positive impact by shaping habits and a performance focus that promotes thriving and protects against anxiety.

Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS
Book an appointment with Dr Jay-Lee at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre and UFIT Clinic to help your child thrive in high pressure environments.