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There’s something to be said about how much we compare ourselves to others in everyday life, writes Alfred Gull, Clinical Psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center.

Whether through the false reality of social media or striving to match friends’ accomplishments, the pressure for perfection can be overwhelming. 

It’s tough enough as an adult; now imagine it from the perspective of children, and teenagers, in particular. Various studies, and certainly the evidence I have seen in patients over recent years, show that self-imposed pressure is rising among adolescents in the region. This has been compounded by the lingering effects of the pandemic, increasing academic demands, and the relentless role of celebrity in today’s culture.

When children look online, they often don’t realise the hard work it has taken for influencers and celebrities to reach their level. Success can seem like a quick and easy win when the opposite is true. This filters down to real life too. There is a competitive nature to living and working in the UAE, where young people find themselves surrounded by high-achieving adults. Inadvertently this can lead to them putting pressure on themselves to live up to similar expectations, particularly in a country where so many expats cultivate their own benchmarks of success. Too much pressure growing up can contribute to chronic anxiety, along with other issues such as insomnia, eating disorders, and depression.

How much is parental pressure to blame?

It can be hard for parents to give encouragement without going too far. Some parents might put overt pressure on their children to reach their full potential; they want them to be high achievers but don’t know how to support them in dealing with stress and staying grounded along the way. Equally, some children naturally try to blueprint their parents’ success without any explicit pressure, which can still lead to feelings of inadequacy. The most worrying scenario is when children believe that “failure is not an option” – either they have convinced themselves or received this message from their caregivers.

As adults, we are responsible for helping children handle academic and social pressures and it is essential to understand that assumptions drive their behaviours. For example, how they assume their parents will react if they do poorly on a test, what they think it takes to be successful, and even what they believe success looks like. We need to help them validate their assumptions, which means giving them explicit feedback as often as possible, or teaching them to ask for feedback whenever something isn’t entirely clear. If we don’t communicate our expectations, it leaves too many uncertainties, exacerbating insecurity and raising the pressure even more. Crucially children should be encouraged to talk early about their anxieties and share them with people they trust.

Focus On The Journey, Not The Destination 

The abundance of opportunities in a city like Dubai can create a kind of pressure cooker effect, where we feel as if we should take advantage of everything at once, instead of focusing on one thing at a time. It’s counterintuitive to operate this way. Teach children to plan and develop more manageable goals before they dive in head first. It’s not a race to the top, but rather a process of continued progression. 

Adolescents also need to experience what it feels like to make mistakes, as this shapes who they will become in later life. They shouldn’t be afraid to fail if they can learn something from it. No one is perfect, not even the most famous, so try giving them some examples they can relate to. If we look at top athletes like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, both became GOATs (greatest of all time) in their respective sports through owning up to their mistakes, embracing their failures and coming back stronger than before. 

Michael Jordan explains it best: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

Tips for helping kids cope with pressure 

  1. Help children verbalise the pressure they are feeling. They may not always understand it, and they might experience physical symptoms not knowing they are linked to anxiety. Ask them to open up about any unpleasant feeling, however small. 
  2. As soon as they can verbalise these feelings, encourage them to talk about them.
  3. Be patient and listen. Once they hear themselves vocalising their emotions, they’ll start to gauge if the level of pressure they are actually experiencing is higher than expected, or not as bad as they initially thought.
  4. Above all, it’s about ensuring they feel seen and heard whenever they seek your attention. 
  5. Be honest and seek outside help if needed. Parents should encourage their children to speak openly with a professional about their pressure, anxieties, and fears.