However, it's the opposite that holds true for younger adolescents and young adults, whose self-esteem is based more on good relations with parents, the study found.
Led by Hairong Song, a doctoral candidate in psychology, Emilio Ferrer-Caja, an associate professor of psychology, and Ross Thompson, a professor of psychology, the study is titled "Cognitive and Sociocognitive Development."
The study was conducted on 584 students ages 11 to 23 from Guangzhou and Hangzhou. All the participants filled out questionnaires that assessed the quality of their relationships with their mothers, fathers and peers. They also filled out self-evaluations that measured self-esteem.
"This study suggests that high school is a period of special challenge to Chinese adolescents because of the competitive academic pressures they face. High school is a time when many Chinese adolescents experience intense pressures from parents to perform well in school," said Thompson.
He added: "Even in a society that traditionally emphasizes family ties, enhanced by the government's one-child policy, competition to get into the best universities may be causing high-schoolers to turn to their peers for support and affirmation."
The study will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Boston.