The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tension, stress invade world of the toddler

The five-year-old girl constantly complained of tummy and headaches every morning before going to school. After a battery of non-conclusive tests by various doctors, a trip to a psychiatrist proved the child had “prominent symptoms of anxiety” related to school performance.

The age bar of patients suffering from depression has now dropped to Montessori toddlers. With stress and tension invading the world of the young, cases of depression amongst kids who can’t cope is rising alarmingly. The reasons are many, according to psychiatrists, not the least of it being that “children are not allowed to be just children any more”. Until a couple of years ago, the age of admission into schools was age six. Now, it’s three. Hence, the pressure of performance begins before the toddlers can even speak in full sentences, observes veteran Montessorian Kusum Bhandari. “The parents put pressure on the child, because they want ‘what’s best’ for them. But the children don’t know how to cope. They feel lost and inadequate.”

Part of the reason for increased cases is because people are more aware these days, says Aniruddha Deb, a child psychiatrist with Mon Foundation. “But a large number is due to the growing stress and anxiety among children.”

Take the five-year-old who was a good student, and knew the alphabet from a to z. Her parents ignored some written complaints by her teacher, although occasional questions like “will I die if I jump off the balcony'” worried them. One day, they were called to school, and were shocked to be told by the principal that their daughter was a ‘trouble-maker’. The kid howled all the way back home. It was later discovered that she had been told by a teacher that her parents would throw her out of the house if she wasn’t a good girl. That was her primal fear.

In today’s times, a counsellor is a “must” for every school, feels Mukta Nain, principal of Birla High senior school, “because Calcutta schools are so large, that it is often not possible for teachers to give individual attention”. The counsellor of Birla High remains on campus for about three hours every day. A result of her month-end report reveals that the commonest reasons for stress, sometimes leading to depression, are academic, parental and peer pressure for teenagers and sibling rivalry for the younger ones.

Psychiatrist Jairanjan Ram refers to the 12-year-old boy who had a debilitating leg pain and did a round of doctors, from paediatrician, orthopaedic surgeon, neurologist to, finally, psychiatrist, only to be diagnosed with “psychological” problems, caused by the great expectations from parents. “Children often don’t express their problems, so they come out in the form of behavioural abnormalities or physical symptoms,” explains Ram.

Parent pressure for performance, curricular and extra-curricular, is paramount. The problem with even hobby classes is the pressure to be the best. “If it’s cricket, he has to be another Sourav Ganguly, if it’s dancing, they have to be another Thankamani Kutti. Where has the element of fun gone' The point is to let the children live, rather than exist. We want complete human beings for our next generation, not mindless clerks,” says psychiatrist Deb.

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