Pressure can be fatal

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Ian Munro discusses the pressure on teenagers to perform.

Ian Munro
Ian Munro

As we head towards mid-year and mid-year exams in the senior school, a reader writes about her son's concern about the pressure to achieve that some of his mates are under. He's worried that one might be at breaking point, even suicidal.

It's not uncommon for me to hear from time to time about the parental pressure that some pupils are under to achieve regardless of the cost, some even being punished for not getting there.

There's no doubt that some sort of pressure is necessary to achieve the best results in any activity, including academic achievement. However, it can become seriously problematic if the expectations are unreasonable or if the teenager hasn't yet developed the skills to cope.

Talking at a recent Asia-Pacific International Schools Conference about the consequences of academic pressure alongside the sort of social pressure that teenagers face today, Dr David Gleason had this to say: "Poignantly, it is this increase of stress and pressure that has led to their conditions of anxiety, depression and a host of behavioural manifestations of those conditions including chronic sleep deprivation, substance abuse, eating disorders, cutting and self-injury and, all too frequently, suicide.''

He went on to comment that the pressure of the adult-imposed expectations and demands can be so overwhelming that teenagers sometimes can't see their way through it and can't get their parents to hear them.

It's a work ethic that "seems inappropriately focused on 'perfect achievement' [and] because of that intense focus, it lacks both balance and a healthy respect for the developing child or adolescent who is expected to perform at such exaggerated levels''.

When school performance seems to be slipping and our teens don't seem to be taking action, it's easy for us to react from frustration and helplessness. We can easily and unintentionally add to our teenagers' anxiety and self-doubt, perversely sapping their motivation and destabilising them rather than encouraging them.

If you can get a senior high school pupil talking about how school is going, you'll more often than not hear about the assignments that are due, the projects that need working on and the several assessments coming up in the next week. You might easily pick the anxiety.

This sort of stress becomes unhelpful when it goes beyond being for event-related high performance and becomes embedded. You'll see, or know from your own experience, that it can lead to physical problems such as headaches, stomach aches and sleeplessness or emotional problems such as irrational outbursts, aggression, depression, or anxiety and with it short-term memory loss.

Add undue parental pressure and sadly, each year, a number of pupils fatally succumb to that pressure.

More next week.


Where to get help 

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

The Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757

Specific numbers for children

Youthline 0800 376 633 txt 234 or

What's Up (for 5-18 year olds; 1pm-11pm): 0800 942 8787

Kidsline (aimed at children up to age 14; 4pm-6pm weekdays): 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline)

Rainbow youth (LGBTQ youth helpline): (09) 3764155

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