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May 2023   |   Volume 24 No. 2

Cover Story

Surviving the Pressures of Childhood

Academic demands, unfair treatment by parents and teachers, and negative body images can contribute to stress and poor mental health in childhood. Dr Lee Juyeon of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration has examined the impact of these factors on Korean children and is exploring how child well-being can be cultivated.

In 2015, the first International Survey of Children’s Well-Being was published by Children’s Worlds and it immediately caught the attention of Dr Lee Juyeon. The pilot study surveyed 10- and 12-year-olds in 15 countries across five continents. The country where children reported the lowest life satisfaction? Dr Lee’s homeland of South Korea, sitting well behind such nations as Ethiopia, Nepal and South Africa that have more troubles and lower income levels.

“Korean children have consistently low subjective well-being indicators, like happiness, self-satisfaction and positive affects. I wanted to find out the reasons behind this result,” said Dr Lee.

She and her collaborators zeroed in on the highly competitive academic environment as an aggravator but decided to study the bigger picture beyond academic demands, by focussing on the moderating role of parents and teachers in students’ stress levels. They found that the more children perceived they were being treated unfairly – such as being subjected to unrealistic expectations – the more unhappy they became.

“Our findings suggest that the fairness of significant adults in childhood years could be a buffer to the negative effects of academic stress on their subjective well-being,” she said.

The study is part of a body of work by Dr Lee that looks at factors affecting childhood well-being and how these can be addressed by building up children’s capacity and improving their social environments.

Negative body image

Following on from the academic stress study, she also studied body image satisfaction among Korean children. She found that if children perceived themselves as being overweight – even when they were not – their well-being was affected. Moreover, girls who perceived themselves as underweight had a boost to well-being, unlike boys whose happiness levels were negatively affected.

“For children in early adolescence, body image perception is really important for their self-esteem and self-satisfaction, and ultimately for their mental health. But this perception is also influenced by society’s ideals or expectations, which are different for each gender,” she said.

“Mental health in childhood and adolescence is important for adult life, not necessarily in a linear or determinant way, but because it is the time when children start to develop their identity and self-perception and think about who they are as a member of society.”

The importance of children’s well-being is recognised not only by the Children’s Worlds studies (subsequent surveys have been held, including in 2016–2019 for 35 countries and regions; South Korea placed 29th for overall well-being and Hong Kong 34th, just ahead of Vietnam), but also by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The latter organises the Programme for International Student Assessment, which surveys the academic abilities of 15-year-olds across dozens of countries every three years and recently launched a new international survey on students’ social and emotional skills.

Stress management for children

“Social and emotional competence encompasses different domains such as self-regulation, emotion and stress management, and social and communication skills. Brain science and other research supports the idea that this competence is malleable, especially throughout the school years, and can be cultivated with effective interventions,” Dr Lee said.

“Stress and emotional management on the individual level is an important part of this but so are things like anti-bullying initiatives and making more inclusive, pro-social environments in schools, which circles back to my previous findings on fairness.”

Dr Lee has analysed one intervention called Toolbox, which is popular in northern California. Its premise is that even young children have the tools within themselves to manage their emotions and stress, such as using breathing or going to a quiet place on their own to calm down, and to build positive relationships, such as remembering to thank people and apologise for mistakes. Dr Lee and her team studied four elementary schools that adopted Toolbox and compared them with two non-intervention schools of similar demographics. Using teacher assessments of students throughout the year, they found teachers in the intervention group reported greater social and emotional competence among their students, such as managing strong emotions, being kind to others and persisting when they encountered difficulties.

“The academic stress and body shape studies show that societal environments can affect children’s stress and well-being. But children can also learn how to manage their stress and live more fulfilling lives if there is effective intervention through social and emotional learning [SEL],” she said.

Dr Lee is now studying the OECD data to understand cultural differences in social and emotional competence in Western and Asian children, and ultimately hopes to implement SEL initiatives in Asia that are effective, sustainable and equity-enhancing.

Mental health in childhood and adolescence is important for adult life, not necessarily in a linear or determinant way, but because it is the time when children start to develop their identity and self-perception and think about who they are as a member of society.