Hong Kong teenagers are no strangers to academic pressure. As the years go on, studying increasingly becomes less about the desire to learn, and more about the need to attain good grades, as students attend tutoring class after tutoring class, and cram in revision sessions any spare moment they have.
In reality, less-than-perfect grades really aren’t going to ruin our lives – so why is so much emphasis placed on getting top scores?
Dr Andrew Adler is a clinical psychologist who has been working with Young Post’s junior reporters on a series of articles about teen psychology. He explained that the pressure teens are put under comes from a mix of economic uncertainty and traditional ideas of what means to be successful.
“Teenagers in Hong Kong face extreme pressure, both from their parents and teachers, to perform well academically. This pressure may be the result of the intense competition to get into highly ranked colleges, as well as cultural values emphasising the importance of academic achievement.”
In most cases, the pressure parents put on their children is well-meaning. Many people see education as a ticket to a better life; they want their children to be able to go to university so that eventually they can have a well-paid job. But as the working world becomes more competitive – particularly in a work-obsessed society like Hong Kong – and going to university becomes the norm for young people, parents need to ensure that their children will still stand out.
But the pressure young Hongkongers face isn’t only external. Many of us have high expectations for themselves because we want to feel a personal sense of achievement. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a report published by the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment suggests that students tend to try harder and enjoy school more when they set their own goals, rather than having to work towards goals set for them. However, having unreasonably high expectations, or fixating too much on one type of goal, will of course lead to pressure.
With pressure coming from parents, society and even from within, what kind of effects can this have on teens’ well-being?
Adler says academic pressure could cause “significant negative consequences for some teenagers”.
“Each teenager is different in that some can tolerate the pressure well, whereas others become overwhelmed,” he explained. “Those teenagers who are less able to cope with the high level of pressure are at greater risk of developing psychological or psychiatric difficulties such as depression and anxiety.”
This may come as no surprise – you may already know someone struggling with similar conditions. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Adler believes that instead of focusing on factors beyond students’ control, like your parents, teachers or society, you should focus on the things you can control, like your own attitude and behaviour.
“It may be challenging for many teenagers, but developing a different mindset will probably help them place less importance on grades,” said Adler.
“It is best for teenagers to value a wide range of achievements … there are many other experiences that contribute to teenagers developing healthy beliefs and behaviours, including group activities like sport and personal interests, such as hobbies.”
In other words, having good social skills, being creative, and keeping active are all types of achievements that have very little do with textbooks or revision. Learning to appreciate all the ways in which a person can be successful will help students to see that academic success alone does not define us – and perhaps we can finally dial down the pressure.
Andrew Adler, Ph.D., Advisor
Licensed Psychologist (US)
Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, Yale University
+852 9386 5104