What is your child’s next step after this lovely summer? Back to the safe, predictable and familiar routines of their old school? Or are they facing a change of school, a GAP year, starting university, no university or their first job?
Whatever the transition, when familiar structures disappear this can bring about mixed feelings of excitement, fear or worry, not only for them, but also for us as parents. When our child behaves slightly differently, or is unwilling to talk to you, this is a sign that they are under pressure. They may not be aware of their uncertainty - possibly about fitting in socially, doing well or making their mark - but heightened anxiety leaves them vulnerable to turning to unhelpful things in order to cope.
This is where you can help. But as every parent knows, as they get older, they’re more prone to feeling they can handle everything and want to do it their way, so it’s a fine line for us to steer conversations which get them to think realistically, recognise potential pitfalls, make sensible choices and form their own plans/views. It is important that we don’t tread on eggshells around minefields, or give them a lecture on do’s and don’ts or rescue them and do their thinking for them.
HERE ARE SOME WAYS OF PREPARING YOUR CHILD TO MANAGE THE NEXT STEP
1. CHALLENGES– You know your child best. Think about the areas they may struggle with. Are they flexible and throw themselves into new situations, or do they struggle with change/social change and getting involved? Open up discussion around areas of potential difficulty to help spark awareness and responsibility “What are your thoughts about….?” “What might you do when…..?” “Talk me through….” “Tell me how you normally….”
2. ACKNOWLEDGE STRENGTHS & INTERESTS – when a child is enjoying itself and they feel they have something to offer they will feel more confident. Remind them of their character strengths. Ask them which interests/hobbies they might like to continue – sport, exercise, music, art. Now it’s optional, it’s up to them, but not doing these things may take its toll.
3. ROUTINE/STRUCTURE - Having a structure will balance out angst and provide motivation/energy. Talking through what has worked in the past reminds them what they need to do moving forward. Do they enjoy physical activity and outdoor time? Or do they need space and quiet to avoid stress? One area of focus in our new book is “Having a lifestyle approach that works to trigger the release of good chemicals into the system which helps keep mental and emotional states in balance”. By this we meanexercise, downtime, screen-free time, regular bedtimes, a balanced diet – all potential casualties of change/transitions and growing up.
4. EXPECTATIONS– can cause huge stress so working out what they (and you) are hoping for long-term will help. Most teens put unreasonable pressure on themselves by having unrealistic hopes and adults can sometimes inadvertently fuel these with over optimism “Senior school will be amazing” or “the first year at uni will be the best of your life” “you’ll love your new job”. We don’t want to be a killjoy, but we can help realign aspirations to an achievable level
5. DISAPPOINTMENTS – Don’t ignore moments when they look disappointed, frustrated, they’ve done something wrong, they lost/failed or they made a mistake. Avoiding facing up to reality now means they will find it hard to accept that things will not always go their way. Sharing some of your failures helps to normalise this as part of their journey.
6. CHOICES/RISK TAKING – With more freedom comes more choice and helping your child think through where they stand on various issues will help them become more anchored when facing peer/social pressure. Have spontaneous conversations about inevitable temptations – pushing the boundaries, smoking, gambling, gaming, viewing pornography, drugs, alcohol. Ask them their view on these topics. How far would they go to maintain popularity? What are the implications of crossing the line? Taking risks is enticing for teens and part of the healthy process of independence, but which risks they choose becomes crucial.
7. SLEEP - More independence brings more distractions eg. gaming/tech, drinking/clubbing, and bedtime becomes their responsibility. Erratic sleep patterns disrupt normal physical and mental functioning, (eg memory), and depresses feelings of wellbeing. Another theme in our new book is about ”when things are out of kilter, teens are especially vulnerable to trying negative strategies to regulate their feelings and biochemicals. Trying to get themselves back on an even keel is what is likely to lead them down what we call ‘Temptation Alley’ (the wrong crowd, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sex, gaming)”
8. HELP - Get them to think about and identify who they would turn to and when they would know they need to ask for help/support. Knowing this, plus pursuing interests (which calm or boost flagging spirits) and having some structure in their life (2&3 above) will go a long way towards building resilience. What we want to avoid is zero self-awareness so they ignore all the signs and soldier on (eg. struggling academically/emotionally/psychologically) until they end up with adrenal fatigue.
9. CHECK IN REGULARLY - You can continue to be a vital source of reassurance, but as they head off onto the next stage, with all the pressures of trying to find their place, this can be hard to find time. Use any opportunity to assess how they are coping. Don’t wait for the wheels to come off before stepping in.
10. PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE – no parent today can avoid reading about the mental health decline of our pre-teen and teenage children. But many parents are not aware that 1:5 young adults have diagnosable mental health issues too, so it doesn’t all miraculously sort itself out once they are in full-time employment. An unhealthy lifestyle during adolescence will trigger poor mental/psychological/emotional/health and will require professional help. Getting them mentally in the driving seat through discussion and encouraging them to think about lifestyle choices should go a long way to keeping things on an even keel.