The academic pressure placed on Jewish teens by their schools and parents is at “boiling point” and causing increased levels of stress and anxiety, according to a leading expert.
Shelley Marsh, executive director of Reshet, which trains educators working with young people in the community, said teenagers need more time to switch off from academia.
“There are pressures facing young people today that we didn’t use to have. If your child is in a Jewish school, they are under more pressure than ever,” says Mrs Marsh, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the field.
She said Jewish schools are passing on the pressure because they are competing to do well in league tables. “Even if you have a relaxed family atmosphere at home, when you go to school you are under pressure not to let your school down.
“The pressure is at boiling point for the educators and the students.”
According to Mrs Marsh, parents are also guilty of giving children mixed messages about success and happiness which is damaging their self-esteem.
“On the one hand, parents say ‘don’t feel pressured, you should feel good about yourself’, but then when their child comes home with a C it is, ‘what do you mean you got a C?’ We need to think more about what messages we are sending our young people.”
Reshet was set up three years ago by UJIA and the Jewish Leadership Council to support young people and informal educators in schools, synagogues, youth movements, and clubs.
Mrs Marsh, who runs a yearly conference for the community on how to support young people, says academic pressures are not the only thing negatively impacting on the mental health of teenagers.
“The speed of change when it comes to the online world is widening the gulf between young people and parents,” she said.
“Parents are not grappling with the way social media is changing the way we are communicating.”
Mrs Marsh, who helps to facilitate safeguarding training in youth movements and clubs, said Jewish parents, like others, often struggle to talk to their children about sex.
She said it highlights the need for youth leaders to be trained to deal with issues around sex and relationships.
“There are a number of people who find it very difficult to talk to their children about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, and there are a lot of people who don’t want to hear that from their parents.
“People who are delivering peer-to -peer leadership have such an important role in our community.
“That kind of education might not be able to be measured, but it is very important. You measure it by looking at what young people understand about their behaviour.”
She highlighted the work of Jewish Women’s Aid, which has been helping to deliver workshops on healthy relationships to teenagers.
Mrs Marsh, who has received a further three years of funding for Reshet’s work, thinks young people in the community are more articulate about what they feel, “but don’t necessarily know what to do about it”.
And those suffering with mental health problems are not always able to access the support that they need.
“It is a huge issue in society and it is no different in the community,” she said.
“The threshold for child and adolescent mental health services is very high and the waiting list is immense.
“I don’t think the community can answer that.”
She said Jewish organisations need to be careful to not fall foul of the “holy hush” when it comes to reporting abuse.
“Whether it is sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse, verbal or emotional, our role as a community is to say that is not right.
“We have abuse in our community like any other and we need to know what action to take when we see it.”
Mrs Marsh, who has delivered safeguarding training to more than 47 leaders from the liberal to the Charedi communities, said there was sometimes a barrier stopping leaders sharing information about abuse with outside agencies.
“We have made good progress as a community but we can always do better,” he said.
The youth worker said it was important for young people to engage in as much informal education activity as possible.
However, she is concerned that some families overlook the benefits because they are less tangible than those in formal education.
“It is important to come away from academic pressure and to do something else, be that a sport, an Israel tour, a club, or something creative.
“It depends on the family, but if they are going to spend money on activities, most people want to know what they are going to get for that.
“Some things are not necessarily that tangible, but they are key for development and creating healthy and happy young people.”
She said Jewish families have changed in the same way they have in wider society, and parents are under increased amounts of pressure to work longer hours, leaving them with little or no time for their children.
“We are seeing less and less of the 1950s model of the mum as the person who runs the house full time and we are seeing more single parents. Family life has shifted and often both parents have to work,” Mrs Marsh said.
It means that those working with children outside education are not “just childcare, they are facilitating the role of coaches, mentors and councillors”.
Parents must make a conscious effort to spend quality time with their children, she said.
“I could sit on the laptop all evening and she could sit on her phone, but then where is the conversation?
“We need confident parents who can say I am going to put that away and focus on our time.”
Some parents struggle to disconnect, she said.
“Go to a kosher restaurant and look around at who is looking at each other and talking, and who is taking photos of the food and putting it on Facebook. It is impacting on human relationships.”