A fortnight ago, a Class 12 student walked into Dr Samir Parikh’s clinic at Gurgaon’s Fortis Memorial Research Institute with his father. "My dad is very stressed because of my exams," he said. "Please talk to him."
Though this was the first case he has had of a teenager seeking help for a parent, Dr Parikh said the incident highlights the increasing trend of parents seeking help to stop from unwittingly transferring their anxiety to their children. "Most parents who come to my clinic don’t know they have severe exam-related anxiety that is leading to their developing physical symptoms such as insomnia, high blood pressure or frequent headaches," says Dr Parikh. "They are usual referrals who come reluctantly and are surprised to find how deep their fear is of their child underperforming."
About four in five parents admitted to getting very stressed and anxious during their children’s exams and three in five said that they couldn’t cope with the pressure, showed Fortis Hospital’s survey of 3,100 parents of students in classes 9 to 12 in public schools across Delhi and the NCR. Two in three of the parents surveyed said they need counselling to help deal with the situation.
Anup Sengupta, 48, developed chronic headache two months ago. Doctors blamed it on high blood pressure, which was found to be an alarming 120/170 mmHg. "I’d got my annual check-up done in August and my blood pressure was a healthy 80/115 mmHg. The doctor checked it thrice because the readings were so fantastic," he said.
A clutch of expensive tests showed his heart and blood vessels were as clean as a whistle, so the cardiologist asked him again if he was sure he wasn’t stressed. "I said I wasn’t, but he said it may be underlying anxiety and referred me to a psychologist."
In conversation with the counsellor, Sengupta mentioned that his daughter was in Class 12. A few chats later, he realised that he was stressed about her not performing well enough to make it to a college in Delhi. "Since I was petrified of her living alone in a strange city, I was pressurising her to work harder. That was taking a toll on both her and me," he said.
Madura Khilani, 44, started getting a recurrent nightmare she thought she had outgrown when she got out of India’s rigorous exam system more than two decades ago. "Each night, I wake up in sweat from a dream about my mind going blank during an exam. I tell myself it’s not real, but still it takes me several minutes to calm down and sleep," says Khilani.
The sleeplessness made her tired, irritable and hypertensive, which prompted Khilani to consult a sleep specialist, who put it down to anxiety and referred her to a psychologist. Khilani’s sleeplessness was due to her son’s Board exams, which she had earlier believed were not causing her any overt stress.
Out of control According to Dr Parikh, the inability to overcome stress makes parents feel helpless and unable to control the situation, which, in turn, makes them go hard on the child. "This not only makes children stressed and hostile, but it also diffuses their sense of responsibility for their grades, because they feel their success matters more to their parents than it does to them," says Dr Parikh.
Dr Pulkit Sharma, a clinical psychologist at Imago Centre for Self in Delhi’s Nehru Place, contends that most parents come to discuss their child’s stress and it takes some time for them to realise that it’s their own stress getting transferred to their child. "They need to be told to step back and let the child cope because at the end of the day, coping is a skill children need to develop to deal with life’s highs and lows," he says.
In some cases, the pressure is so subtle that parents don’t even realise how they are making their child unduly worried. "Pressure sometimes takes the form of the parents going an extra mile during the exams, taking time off from work and helicoptering over the child, suffocating the child," says Sonia Anand, a counsellor at Lotus Valley in Gurgaon.
What works, however, is that most parents are ready to listen. "Parents are getting more receptive by the day," says Anand, "because at the end of it all, they want what is best for their child."