Hot housed Chinese schoolkids are getting ill from the stress

Chinese schoolchildrenA third of Chinese children experience high levels of school-related stress, and these kids are about five times more likely to have the physical symptoms of stress – that is, headache or abdominal pain – then their less frazzled peers.

Thanks to the combination of China’s recent economic growth – with the increased opportunities for upward mobility – and the vast numbers of people competing for each university place and job, Chinese children are under pressure to do well right from the start of primary school.

A cross-sectional study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood has now shown the negative effects this relentless pressure can have on children’s health.

The study was carried out on more than 2,00 children aged 9-12 years in nine schools in urban and rural areas of Zhejiang, a relatively wealthy coastal province in the east of China.

Nearly a fifth said they rarely enjoyed school, with boys less likely to enjoy school than girls. A total of 81% said they worried “a lot” about exams, and 78% felt under pressure to perform well at school “all the time.”

In particular, the punitive nature of school in China comes across in this study: 44% of children were always afraid of being punished by their teachers. Furthermore, 71% said they were physically punished by their parents at least sometimes. No wonder these kids were so worried about doing well.

When it came to the psychosomatic symptoms of stress, 67% of boys and 66% of girls reported headache at least once a week, whereas 60% of boys and 78% of girls has stomach ache that often.

As a comparison, a study of school stress in Swedish 10-13 year olds reported that 21% of boys and 30% of girls experienced headache and 17% of boys and 28% of girls experienced abdominal pain at least once per week.

Children who were the most stressed on all the measures looked at were 5.6 times more likely to experience headache and 4.9 times more likely to report abdominal pain than kids who were the least stressed. Being bullied was the individual stressor that was most strongly associated with psychosomatic symptoms.

The authors believe that their findings “reflect the high value placed on education in Chinese society, urban and rural, and the widespread belief in the possibility for upward social mobility through education.”

Piling so much stress onto such young children could be storing up problems for the future. Studies have shown that children who have high levels of anxiety and depression are likely to have psychological problems into adolescence and adulthood.

According to the authors, “Much of the stress in Chinese schools is unnecessary and has simply become incorporated into the system.” They recommend reducing the frequency of exams and the sheer volume of homework to make life a little less intense for kids.

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Hesketh T et al. (2010) Stress and psychosomatic symptoms in Chinese school children: cross-sectional survey. Archives of Disease in Childhood 95 (2): 136-140. DOI: 10.1136/adc.2009.171660

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