Updated: Aug 28, 2018
This time of year the news and social media are rife with stories of the pressures of being a teenager and the most recent changes to school exams to make them even harder.
In the aftermath of the 2018 GCSE exam results, we explore:
· What messages are we sending about measuring personal value against academic results?
· And do academic success, social safety and self-esteem go hand in hand?
What is Social Safety?
Human beings are social creatures. Much of our evolution is focussed around the sharing of our resources (including knowledge) and our ability to keep one another safe as part of a social unit. As our brains have developed, our social learning has also developed and fear of being shunned from the 'group' has been hardwired into our fear system. Hardwired into the same fight/flight fear system that was designed to keep us safe from immediate threat of death.
Where does Self Esteem come from?
When we are born, we learn about social safety extremely quickly- we have to! From the tiny brand new human that is completely defenceless, we learn to rely on other humans to keep us safe and keep us alive. We can gurgle, suck, poop and piddle and that is pretty much it. But we quickly learn to recognise faces, smells and sounds of the people around us. We start to move around and put things into our faces. We start to talk and involve ourselves with other humans.
As young children we learn and make judgements very quickly and the understanding that we have about the world at this stage is also pretty 'all or nothing' in it's approach:
'I am... ' (loved, looked after, clever, stupid, useless etc)
'People are... ' (encouraging, loving, critical, better than me) and
'The World is...' (a harsh place full of criticism, fluffy and nice and completely at my mercy!)
These statements form the foundation to our self esteem. In CBT we called these our 'Core Beliefs' or the 'Bottom Line'. The bottom line is the fundamental truth about something once you strip everything else back. "The bottom line is that he's not very nice!"
Rules were meant to be broken?
As we progress through our school years and our wonderful hormones kick in, we start to consider a life that is more independent from our family unit and making our own way in the world. During this phase we start to learn more fully our 'Rules for Living'. These Rules either make sure the uncomfortable beliefs don't come out, or make sure that the good stuff continue! It’s a bit like a shield or a protective bubble…
'If I do well at school, people will think I am clever and they will love me'
As long as I do well at school, I might feel okay. But if things occur that don't fit with these rules, the bubble is burst and we can feel quite vulnerable.
"I’m stupid" "unlovable" "the world is unfair"
Of course it’s not all about the young people who don’t ‘make the grade’. High achievers are more likely to have perfectionistic rules and expectations for themselves AND get the results. The outcome and the praise is then enough to prove the rule right and reinforces it or even shifts the bar even higher for next time leaving them with ever increasing standards and ever decreasing chances of actually feeling good for all the effort they put in.
The coverage of depression and anxiety cases in top universities across the country is a sad reminder of this growing pressure in very academically capable students.
As the media and every parent of a 16 year old child that I have ever spoken to says- the focus on exam RESULTS seriously pressures our teenagers and increases stress, anxiety and depression levels along the way. What might be the psychological rules that are attached to that one day, that one set of results?
I must be the top of my class?
I must get straight grades?
I must not fail?
I must be able to please everyone?
I must do just as well as my friends?
The feared consequences of results day for a teenager could quite literally feel like life or death.
So I wonder...
If we could choose a message to give our teenagers about results day, would we really choose to encourage that life or death feeling in exchange for a good grade?
And is the result really more important than anything else that they are learning so quickly about themselves, other people and the world?
Let us know your thoughts by joining the conversation below.