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  • Writer's pictureangie holstein

The Burden of Worry: Gripping Academic Pressure and Pressure to Succeed for South Asian Youth

Updated: Sep 24, 2022


We know for many South Asian students the pressure to succeed comes from parents.

South Asian immigrant parents sacrifice a lot to come to Canada to make a better life for their families and provide opportunities for their children. With that comes a lot of hopes and dreams and pressure to succeed that are placed on their children and youth. This is also applicable to international students sent abroad by their families for their education.





There is this concept of the “Model Minority” These are the children that are deemed destined for academic and professional success. These students experience enormous pressure to succeed and are often not able to admit when they are struggling. Implicit messages of success are compounded from within students' internalized beliefs of exceptional achievement, acquired about themselves based on their parents beliefs and values, from within schools, their families, and extended community. Teachers and administrators may overlook high achievers as being “fine”and not at risk for mental health issues. The mental and physical cost of high achievement is often overlooked, when in fact these are the students who are not “allowed” to mess up and so when they do, which is normal, it is really hard on their mental health and wellbeing. Mistakes are felt in a catastrophic way and are often met with shame and blame from parents.





Perfectionism. Being perfect in all areas of life is another common intergenerational family tension. Many South Asians talk about the academic pressure extending to other areas of maintaining perfection at home. Messages to excel in studies, be good at prayer, standards with clothing, doing chores, and looking after siblings and general over responsibility.


Narrative from A South Asian Youth:

Everything I did for my parents was to make them happy. But everything they did, their expectations were up here. They compared me to doctors and engineers when I was in grade 4. It was stressful. I guess it is family image…They force us to, it’s like 99% or you don’t come home…And then they compare you to other people’s kids. They tell you, you know that kid studies 20 hours a day.


Filial Piety in youth, the desire to make their parent(s) proud, can motivate children to achieve but can also place undue pressure on them within unrealistic expectations. The idea of being typical or ordinary often leads to feelings of nothingness, shame, inadequacy and low self worth, unless exceptional achievements can be accomplished.


For South Asian parents one of the biggest sources of pride is when their children are successful academically. Having high standards isn’t all bad and has many payoffs. As such, many South Asian children and youth do in fact grow up to become successful in their careers and have good standards of living. Striving for the best, belief in yourself, and trying to achieve to the fullest of your capacity isn’t wrong in of itself. It is about looking at the balance of all aspects of life; achievement and success being one part.


The problem is that if you are always at the top of the class the only place to go is down. Something that occurs naturally throughout the academic careers of high achievers. The dark side is that, for many other South Asian children, expectations and comparisons placed on them by their parents cause an incredible amount of stress, failure to thrive which causes many to decompensate mentally under the pressure and experience physical health issues, mental health issues and many contemplate suicide as they start to beleive they are not worthy, not lovable, not important and that they are inherently flawed. If one is always competing, there is a thinking pattern that develops towards evaluation of self and others which can lead to increased self critical thoughts and harsh self judgment.


Programs such as the arts are often viewed as a failure or the easy way out and youth worry that their family will perceive them in this way and thus love starts to feel conditional based on success.


Conditional love can be defined as just that--love with conditions. South Asian youth speak about feeling that their parents' love is felt as contingent on certain actions, or successes.


Often South Asian youth - either first generation or international students - will struggle in university settings due to internalized negative beliefs, lack of support and crushing academic pressure. Achievements attained in high school are often difficult to sustain in university based on all the adjustments and transitions that occur for youth in that first year: living away from home; more freedom; social activities etc.


If you have been raised within the framework as described you may relate to one or more of the following symptoms of stress:


Mind:

  • Mood swings

  • Irritability

  • Feelings of isolation

  • Lack of focus

  • Memory Difficulties

  • Depression and Anxiety

  • Poor Judgment

  • Chronic worry

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Anger

  • Perfectionism

  • Low self esteem and self worth - which leads to even worsening academic performance

  • Suicidal ideation

  • Self harm - more typically in female youth

  • Substance abuse

  • Poor social relationships.


Body:

  • Headaches and Migraines

  • Breathing difficulties

  • High blood pressure

  • Muscle pain and tension

  • Hair loss

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Weight Gain

  • Cancer

  • Diabetes

  • Infertility

  • Hormone Imbalances

Research has shown that when children have low self-esteem, they are even less likely to succeed academically, have even more trouble making friends, and will have a more difficult time finding a life partner when they are adults.


Why so much academic pressure?


  • Rigidly conforming to South Asian community’s expectations and norms of what “success” should look like rather than considering their child’s feelings. High levels of frustration are reported by youth who say that, no matter what they did, their parents still constantly compared them with some “model student,” which they always failed to measure up to.

  • Poverty. For families coming from South Asian countries. Academic success leads to prestige, safety, security and financial gain. For families who have lived in poverty, their child may be the one to lead them out of their situation. Having a degree from a renowned university is often believed to be one of the ways out of poverty.. My own parents used to say if you don’t get high marks and a good job you’ll starve in the street. This way of motivating me was a reflection of my parents' reality from living in India and seeing their fellow citizens living on the streets or in slums. It was their way of protecting me from what they feared the most.

  • Systemic Racism. Parent’s reality was that they had to work harder than their white colleagues for job sustainability. The pressures they put on themselves become the legacy burdens passed along to subsequent generations.

  • Social status. South Asian culture is steeped in the caste system and it’s own discriminatory practices - success and prestige are seen as leveling the class system. The child’s success reflects upon the parents' success. The child’s failures are felt as their failures. All the signs of enmeshment .


Success and prestige should not come at the expense of one’s well-being. It’s hard for parents to find ways to motivate their children and help them succeed without crushing them with worry and their own burdens of trauma.


Finding your passion in school and work life isn’t easy. Along the way you may encounter criticism and backlash from decisions that may not fit within the family expectations. This will cause hurt. Remember though, that your academic career isn’t about pleasing others and fitting into standards that may be outdated and not applicable in the modern world. It’s about finding what you like to do, endeavors that give you a spark and joy and then working hard at it from there.

Communication and change is hard on parents and their children. Ideally, through good communication, love, and support, families can grow and change together. If you find yourself struggling with your mental health, academically, and communicating with your family, seek support from those around you and consider seeing a therapist to support you to create a more balanced life and healthier relationships. Know that you are not alone.


Angie Agrawal Holstein, MSW, RSW, Psychotherapist


Creating change can feel overwhelming, but through supportive, non-judgmental dialogue, you can begin to better cope with the feelings, thoughts and behaviour patterns associated with your life's challenges.





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