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Dear Yale: I loved being here. I only wish I could’ve had some time. I needed time to work things out and to wait for new medication to kick in, but I couldn’t do it in school, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having to leave for a full year, or of leaving and never being readmitted. Love, Luchang.
This is what Luchang Wang, a sophomore Math major at Yale, wrote on Facebook in 2015 before she jumped to her death from the Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay.
This essay aims at tackling three issues – The alarming rates of depression and anxiety among children from the Asian/Indian American communities, the “taboo” topic of mental illness and the different strategies that parents can adopt to boost the self confidence and self esteem of children to raise them into well rounded individuals.
Self confidence vs. Self esteem?
Wikipedia: The concept of self-confidence is commonly used as self-assurance in one’s personal judgment, abilities, power, etc.
The definition of self confidence of a child is not unilateral. Its determined based on a combination of many events a child experiences – at home, at school and among his peers. Its a child’s ability to take initiation in a task without hesitation. Its his ability to being comfortable in his own skin. Imagine a child who’s academically brilliant, but doesn’t have the self confidence to raise his hand to answer all the questions he knows in class. How’s the teacher to find out about his abilities?
But if the child is self confident, he’s ready to meet challenges, face failures, and quickly adapt to changing situations without his inner monologue blocking his every move. As he grows up, you can trust him to be the first one to hit the dance floor, jump into action to help others who’re struggling and also share his opinions publicly to create a positive environment around him.
Self esteem is how much the child values himself and his abilities. It leads to how he surrounds himself with things that reflect his own view of himself. Children with a healthy self esteem value their interests and their personal contributions to society. They don’t feel the need to embellish themselves with symbols or other crutches that artificially boost one’s status in society. When adversity hits, they often bounce back quickly because they’re not afraid to try harder again and again and again.
Factors affecting self confidence and self esteem in children are:
During the ages of 5 to 12, children learn to do things on their own. This is the age where they feel confident in their ability to initiate and achieve goals. Negligence or restrictions on a child during such time casts doubts on his own abilities leaving him not striving for competence because of feelings of inadequacy. ~ Industry (competence) vs. Inferiority by Erik Erikson.
- Many children are naturally anxious about high expectations at home and school as they continue to learn. As they enter middle school, they are also eager to meet peer expectations. Sometimes peer expectations can be in direct conflict with parental expectations. What is cool with his peers might be an absolute no no for a child’s parent.
- Setting expectations positively or negatively impact your child’s self confidence.
- Positively: The more you encourage good behavior the more the child is likely to work towards meeting expectations.
- Negatively: If you expect more and more, the burden of meeting expectations on moving targets falls heavily on the child.
- Kids can often internalize frustration towards their parents, “How many times do I have to tell you that its becoming too much for me. How many activities have you signed me up for?”
- Moving towns or even schools in the middle of their emerging youth years might be a detriment to their self worth. As we all know, finding new friends at any age can always been challenging.
Growing up in a Collective society:
Asian/Indian families traditionally emphasize the importance of family membership, respect, and solidarity. These values are referred to as family obligations. Instead of promoting individual needs and personal identity, Asian/Indian families tend to have a family and group orientation. ~ Collectivistic Orientation (Sue & Sue, 2017)
Children are expected to strive for family goals and not to engage in behaviors that would bring dishonor to the family. Generally, parents tend to show very little interest in the child’s viewpoint regarding family matters. Our culture very often undermines children as decision makers. Parenting styles tend to be authoritarian and directive. “I know what is best for my kid, I don’t need his input.” Is usually how some parents feel.
As children in our own countries, we were raised in an environment where expectations were high. We come from a culture where a successful career means (still mostly does) a degree in the Sciences. Art was something we do when we have some spare time. Grade Bs couldn’t have possibly entered our report cards. “How do you expect to succeed with a B?” Well, let’s say, we actually did really well in school or life. Then, instead of showing off our accomplishments, we’re taught to submit to a show of humility and modesty.
There’s nothing wrong with passing down culture from your generation to your child’s. But, what is culture if not food, rituals, festivals, Sunday school, and the values of the unbroken spirit, hard work and dedication?
Raising children in an Individualistic society:
Conflicts arise when role modeling at micro (home) and macro (society) levels don’t match. Conflicts arise when parents who grow up in strict collective environments of the East raise children in the Western culture where individualism is highly coveted.
Most Asian and Indian homes tend to be very patriarchal whereas most schools encourage children to question and debate as they learn new things. When he moves from an environment of high expectations at home to a school, where there are high levels of tolerance even for not knowing things, the child is confused. This lack of congruency between messages the child receives at home, school and peers about expectations can be a big problem.
Signs of depression and anxiety:
If parents’ expectations don’t match the child’s ability to perform, there’s going to be anxiety, confusion and dread in the child. And most times, it takes just one event for a child’s confidence to hit rock bottom. Once their confidence has been undermined, mild symptoms of sadness creep into them because of the mixed messages they are getting from home and school.
Children then start to rebel or defend their every action. Then comes social isolation and self withdrawal. They seek isolation because they can’t seem to satisfy their parents and they can’t compete for attention from the “cool” kids at school. Slowly these conditions will manifest into panic attacks, self harm, social anxiety, social phobias, and other trauma related disorders.
Balancing Culture and Community as Parents:
Man’s control of nature external is Civilization. His control of nature internal is Culture. ~ Swami Chinmayananda
As adults, we don’t consciously draw a line at where we will stop in pushing our children. Its when we as parents don’t strike a balance with our expectations, our children suffer. Below are the strategies for improving a child’s self confidence and self esteem:
- Respect your own culture: Show the light from those who have walked in front of you. Be a role model to your own children and your community. Applaud your child’s curiosity and their drive to understand things and customs around them. Explain cultural contexts patiently.
- Embrace yourself: See humor in being different. You are one of many. There’s a reason why diverse teams in Global companies are successful. Explore your own strengths. Next, humanize yourself and share your own short comings with your children. (Of course, up to a certain extent that’s age appropriate.)
- Practice self compassion: Share tips on how to boost self confidence. “Smile, dress well and give. Assume no one’s judging, because no one can really.” Give honest and a compassionate review of tasks your children have completed. Tell them their inner voice of appreciation is always good enough. Ask them how they feel about themselves. And then reinforce your love for them.
- Take their opinion: And value them. Ask them to explain their preference. For example, when you’re grocery or clothes shopping with your child, ask him to choose one item over another, and then let him explain his preference. Show him that his ideas matter.
- Beat the taboos: Beat taboos about counseling and seeking help. Don’t dismiss their fears. Even the most high functioning kids might need to reach out. They might be meeting all expectations but silently struggling.
- Set expectations: Explain the difference between their duties and rights. The hardest thing to do is drawing a line. We all consciously know this discrepancy, but we don’t want to acknowledge it. We are anxious that our children might not realize their potential and tap into it.
- Understand his environment: The school provides a safe place for making and learning from their mistakes. Understand that his school environment is designed to allow him to thrive in all areas of psychological development and not just his academic achievements. Don’t lament, “It feels like children here don’t have much desire to grow. They don’t want to excel. They’re very comfortable being mediocre. It feels like they don’t have the drive to succeed. They seem to be confident about the grades they get. They also want to feed us the same chill pill.”
- Drop those Sky high standards: Parents often wonder, “Why should I’ve to congratulate my child for stuff that he’s supposed to do anyway? How is having expectations having bad? Isn’t pressure important for growth? How else will a child know how far he can go?” Having these thoughts is not the problem, taking them too far is.
- Assess where he stands: Is your child capable of what you’re pushing him to aim for? Does he have the potential for it? It might be hard to accept where he is or what he is capable of, but the first step in the wellbeing and mental happiness of the child is parents coming to terms with their expectations of the child. And every child is different. Are you falling into a comparison trap as a parent??
- Let them set agendas: Instead of telling everyone who’s willing to listen, “My daughter is going to MIT or GATech, if I can’t afford to send her out of state, then it has to be GA Tech.” Or, “My first one went to MIT, so its OK if the second one wants to go to GATech.” For a change, ask your child what his own agenda for his future is.
- Accept them: We discipline them using any of these three techniques: Shame, induction of guilt and withdrawal of laughter, hugs and smiles. Instead, take a break and learn to pick up on subtle cues in changes in moods and behaviors. They are the best predictors of anxiety.
- “Good job” them periodically: Even for the low grade in that test, encourage and positively reinforce them to do better next time. You didn’t hear “Good job,” while growing up. Agreed. But, its a learned behavior. We all can make a conscious effort to learn to do it. And better yet, offer them help with their pain points.
- Reinforcements at home: Non verbal cues are important. Act like you’re proud. There was a time when we would bring home good grades and my mother would make sweets for my sister and I. That’s one of the ways I knew my mother was proud of us. In America, they teach children to “Use your words.” So, that’s what they look for from you!
- Don’t embellish: For the smallest infractions that children do playfully, refrain from saying things like, “You’re being too Americanized.” Instead, if its their first mistake at a particular task, tell them how grateful you’re because they had a chance to fail by saying, “Now you can improve and learn from your mistakes.”
- Quality time: How much quality time are you spending with your child, without any distractions? Don’t be in denial about the influence his school and peers have on him. A majority of his waking hours are spent at school. So, thank them for their time when they agree to go for a bike ride with you.
- Seek feedback: Ask them feedback about how you’re doing as a parent. Tell them your goal is to raise happy confident children who realize and reach for their full potential. Keep these thoughts turned off, “I turned out OK, and I was raised in a strict household. So, my son will be OK, once he gets used to my expectations from him.”
- Once again, communicate: Watch for signs of trouble, ask your children to speak up, about what their fears, and what their ambitions are. The key is to open channels of communication to learn about each other. At the end of the day, the ONLY thing they want is a chance to interact with you with undivided attention.
The silent majority of the model minority:
Elite schools like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale accept an average of 6 percent of the application pool. And Wang belonged to such a highly qualified unique minority in the world. However, instead of seeking help for her mental issues, she sought suicide finding no recourse in Yale’s withdrawal and readmission policies.
“These policies, some say, make it especially difficult for students with mental-health issues to feel comfortable leaving campus, even when taking time off from school may improve their wellbeing. As a result, students suffering from anxiety, depression, and other disorders may not be getting the treatment they need. And for many of those who are, the question soon becomes: “How much should I open up?” – The Atlantic.
We take care of our bodies, nourish them and even call them our temples. We get sympathies from strangers if we have cancer. But try revealing your mental health issues and you’re promptly shunned. That’s because mental health counseling has a stigma attached to it. And if you’re Asian or Indian, forget even bringing up that topic in front of your family. Its a lost cause. That leaves people from the Asian/Indian background in alarming rates either self diagnosing themselves or their children. Or many times, they adopt the safe route of denial, as if there’s no problem to begin with.
But, as we are turning into a workforce of knowledge workers using our brains more than our hands, isn’t it time to turn our attention to our mental wellbeing? Are we in a position to leave the lives of children like Wang in the hands of universities and their mental health policies? How can we as parents help to quell the inner self critic that tells our children that he or she should still do much, much more and that their best is just not good enough?