DUBAI // Psychologists are treating children as young as primary school age for stress as youngsters struggle to cope with academic pressure and daily extracurricular activities parents insist they take part in.
Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and co-founder of the LightHouse Arabia mental health centre, said children’s time is being filled with so many activities that they are not being allowed to develop by themselves, or form relationships with their peers and parents.
“Yes it’s important that kids do well, that they work hard in school, but that should not be at the expense of free time, play time, unstructured mind wandering time,” she said, adding that the emphasis on structured activity outside of school hours, homework pressure from a young age and a focus on academics goes against contemporary research.
Sixty per cent of patients at the clinic are children and adolescents from primary to high school age, with about half or more of these attending British or International Baccalaureate schools.
“They don’t have counsellors in these schools, or if they do there may be one for the whole school, in which case who is working on these issues with them?” said Dr Afridi.
“In American schools you have counsellors who go into classrooms and talk about feelings. It’s still very little but at least it’s a person on hand.”
According to the World Health Organisation, 10 to 20 per cent of children and adolescents globally experience mental disorders including anxiety and depression.
Parental pressure to send children to multiple after-school activities each – from sports to music – places more strain on children and parents, said Dr Afridi, who gives her children one to two activities per week outside school.
“The parents’ relationships with the kids is undervalued and we’re investing heavily into their CVs, but not in the relationships, and it’s showing,” she said.
Mother-of-three Kirsten Decker, a British expatriate, said it was hard to strike a school/after-school balance for children when it is not supported by schools or other parents.
“I want my kids to play football in the park, but nobody else is doing that as they have structured activity so how do we start a trend and make things less focused on academics, less on structured activities?” she said.
“We’ve made changes in our family and I don’t let my kids spend too much time on devices, I don’t do it too much in front of them, and I don’t sign them up for too many activities.
“I try to let them be OK with being bored, but for many parents it can be a real pressure to see other families with so many activities scheduled daily.”
Dr Tara Wyne, clinical director and cofounder of the clinic, said parents have expectations of what their children should be doing to be successful.
“You don’t want them to struggle as you did, so it becomes about over-equipping them,” said Dr Wyne.
“You send them to the most academic school, get them tutors for everything, teach them a language, make them musicians, make them culturally aware, make them sports people, make sure they’re networking; and I’m not sure all this speaks to what childhood is supposed to achieve for a child, which is curiosity, discovery, trial and error and failure.”
Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, clinical director at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics, said there was too much emphasis placed on academics.
“We went from looking at children as individuals that need to develop in all aspects of their life, to pushing them to grow up faster than they need to with extra pressure and stress on academics,” said Dr Kanafani.
“We need to remember that the original point of the education system was to raise well-rounded individuals so that they become functional parts of society, not drill them with information until some of them burn out.
“We need to focus on the child as a whole and foster their emotional growth as well as their academic one. The child’s academic identity cannot be the sole focus of their self-worth.”