“Stressed Out and Stretched” – Growth of Youth Smothered under Hong Kong’s Education System

Jane Mann
Assistant Professor (Counselling Studies)


In response to the launch of the 3-3- 4 high school education system1, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) has officially replaced the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) and the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE) since 2012. It has become the only public examination administered for the entire course of Hong Kong’s secondary school education, and is widely seen as “a test of life and death”, adding tremendous pressure and anxiety not only to the students and their parents, but also the teachers. Having witnessed numerous reforms of the education system in Hong Kong, shouldn’t we be concerned about whether the current system is churning out a group of ideal students, who in reality hold zero hope for their future? In fact, what kind of youth can we expect to come out from a system like this?

Currently we have a system that ’s an uber-elitist training for “scores”. It is understandable that scores are used as one of the measurements of the effectiveness of education. However, if the sole purpose of the education system is to produce elitists for the “mainstream”, when the so-called “mainstream” is only defined by “high scores and good academic results” and thus the measurement of one’s accomplishments; Many parents who strive for a sense of success will naturally just go with the flow, whether intentionally or accidentally, creating a trend that’s deemed socially acceptable. In order to ensure a bright future for their children, parents must start as early as getting a spot in their favorite kindergarten. And this means lining up for enrollment forms, taking advantage of personal networks and attending interview, tutoring and interest classes – further intensified by fighting to get into top-rated primary and secondary schools.

Nevertheless, when striving upwards becomes a necessity and competitions never seem to end, people will also become ruthlessly competitive and repel each other. What’s more worrisome is this may lead to self-rejection, self-loathing and earning the ultimate label of “loser”. Youth constantly being “compared to others” are put through all kinds of pressures from their families and the society, to a point where they can easily explode. Some of them may just mildly react with negative emotions. However, many others suffer from an extreme sense of hopelessness and behave erratically, triggering crises in life and other domino effects.

Tensions and Hurdles Stifling Growth

It is heartbreaking to note that Hong Kong has been experiencing a spike in youth suicides in recent years. Among those who committed suicides, some were students from secondary schools, universities, and even primary schools. Studies of most suicide cases show that a combination of various factors, rather than pressure from just one single source, leads to suicidal behavior. Indeed, we need to avoid oversimplifying the reasons for these tragedies. However, the immense pressure from today’s education system on students and parents should not be minimized.

Although youth may find it difficult to express their needs or disturbed emotions, it is still possible to detect signs of distress from their daily behavior. For example, there may be constant complaints of fatigue or illness, loss of interest in activities they used to like, increased refusals to follow rules, overreaction to criticism from others, or easily triggered negative emotions such as agitation and crying, and emotional outburst in reaction to family disputes over trivial things. According to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, each person invariably passes through the eight stages of psychosocial development in life. His theory might provide insights of the developmental needs of youth, and help us understand the layers of stress and tensions caused by Hong Kong’s education system to the youth.

Erikson describes the adolescence period from age 12-18 as the stage of identity versus role confusion. If adolescents can overcome the changes and crises during this stage, they will be able to develop the virtue of fidelity. This is the period where adolescents search for a sense of self and identity in the society. The question “who am I?” constantly lingers on their mind as they try to find out exactly who they are. It is during this stage that adolescents will face an identity crisis, worry about being not good enough or being rejected by others, and lack self-confidence. As a result, they tend to seek approval and response from peers or even borrow identity from others. In order to build a sense of security, belonging and selfidentity, they often find themselves adopting the opinions of the group as their own opinion.

If adults (or the present education system) impose certain roles and expectations on adolescents without giving them sufficient time to explore, the youth will develop identity confusion. This will lead to social withdrawal, isolation and reluctance to interact with others. They may also end up arrogating other people’s roles while giving up their own opinions and identity.

On the contrary, when given enough time to explore the question “who am I?”, and to experiment and understand their own preference and will, adolescents can develop a sense of self-acceptance and confidence, and grow into maturity even amid various types of challenges. There will be inevitable struggles in the process, but in the end, they will be able to develop the virtue of fidelity towards people, things and belief. They will be willing to remain committed to and implement their own choice. However, while exploring, verifying and weighing the answer to “who am I”, adolescents tend not to take the initiative to seek opinions from adults. In fact, they may even appear to avoid or look down on the adults and repel them. It is actually during this process of confronting and challenging that they learn to regenerate their self-identity. Nonetheless, they still rely on the wisdom of adults when faced with major life crises and will actively seek help. A survey on the youth in Hong Kong specifically mentions that they are actually very willing to discuss with their parents before making important decisions.

Seizing Opportunities to Offer Support

To put it simply, when trying to address the needs of youth, instead of solving the problems for them, adults have the responsibility to train the young people so they can think independently, develop confidence and adapt to changes. However, in light of the current education system, our teachers and students both suffer from the deprivation of time and space to think and analyze on their own.

Instead of passing on the core values, education has become a tool to pursue the socalled “excellence” and high scores. When students are cramped with the overwhelming pressure to do well in homework and exams, there is hardly any room for autonomous learning and development -- let alone concern for their emotional health! The sad truth is adolescents have to fight this uphill battle as part of their growth process.

As parents and teachers, we are standing amidst the needs of youth and the academic pressure imposed on them by our education system. The following six aspects may give some insights of how we can offer proper care and guidance to our youth, and accompany them on their path to adulthood:

  • Managing emotions: Remind youth that while there is nothing wrong with using good academic results as a stepping stone for the future, it is also important to maintain their emotional health and know how to deal with stress effectively.
  • Cultivating nurturing parenting: During the period of youth development, adolescents find themselves living under struggles, self-doubt and a sense of loss. Disapproval and negative expressions from parents will definitely push them over the edge and put a damper on their self-esteem. Parents may feel they have tried their best to “properly” raise their children. But if their efforts fail to make their children feel loved and supported, all they do will be of no avail. It is important to share positive bonds with children and avoid negative criticisms. Parents who spend time interacting personally with their children are more likely to enjoy a healthier family relationship.
  • Learning to let go: On their path to maturity, teens must learn to live without protection from their parents and humbly accept other’s criticism. It is therefore crucial for parents and teachers to learn to let go, and understand that by doing so, it is not being irresponsible or cruel. As parents learn to move away from problem solving and providing, teens will have the opportunity to think, analyze and make their own decisions. While holding the teens accountable, parents and teachers can still make themselves available to face the risks and consequences of their children’s decisions together.
  • Facing failure: No matter how well parents have planned for their children, teens will inevitably face all kinds of life obstacles and failures. The best way to empower their children is to let them face and solve their problems. By doing this, they get to take control of their own lives and rebuild a healthy self-image.
  • Nurturing psychological resilience: Resilience is the ability to face stress and manage one’s emotions. A resilient individual does not dwell on one’s shortcomings even in failure. On the contrary, a person with low resilience tends to suffer from emotional disturbances and is likely to label himself or herself disparagingly. He or she will develop social withdrawal and avoid meeting people.
  • Fostering communications: Communication is not imposing on or shaming children, or guilting their conscience in order to motivate them. One cannot communicate just by lecturing without listening, or by listening without accepting. Communication is taking the time to listen attentively to your children’s feelings, rather than talking about school or reproaching. When parents notice unusual behaviors or emotions in their children, they actually need to be aware of their own emotional state first.This is because parents who fail to contain their own emotions often find it hard to listen calmly. Their own anguish causes them to habitually put the blame on others and as a result, their communications with their children break down, just when the teens need to be supported and understood most.

Let us seize every opportunity to show our care for our children. They may seem indifferent on the surface but they yearn for our listening ears. Let us open our ears and arms to them, and give them the best gift they deserve – our love and our presence!



1. The 3-3-4 Scheme is the academic structure for senior secondary education and higher education in Hong Kong, referring to the structure of 3 years of junior secondary school, 3 years of senior secondary school, and 4 years of university education. The launch of this scheme is to replace the 3-2-2-4 system (3 years of junior secondary school, 2 years of senior secondary school, 2 years of matriculation course and 4 years of university education). The scheme began in the 2009 school year.




1. Tang Suk-Ying Jackie, Michael Leung, Wong Ka-Yee Karrie, Li Kit-Hing. Pathfinder: The Very Beginning (in Chinese). Hong Kong: Breakthrough, 2008.

2. Commission on Youth. Youth in Hong Kong Statistical Profile 2010 (in Chinese). Hong Kong: Commission on Youth, 2010.

3. William Crain. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2005.


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