We all know that year 12 can be an incredibly stressful time for students. What we don’t always remember is that parents are often going through this journey as well and can feel just as stressed and helpless. Senior Clinical Psychologist at the University of Technology Sydney, Anna Wallace, offers her tips on how parents can support their teens through this time.
At the UTS Health Psychology Unit we have been giving advice to panicky parents for years on how to help their struggling teen. One thing that is easy to forget is that while the HSC/VCE/WACE/SACE is usually a definite focal point of anxiety, your teen is simultaneously experiencing a whole lot of other challenges associated with simply being a teenager. Such as, asserting their independence from parents, dealing with relationship issues and just going through the run of the mill identity crisis!
So here are our Top 4 tips to help you navigate what is certain to be a tumultuous year ahead.
1. Stay connected
Is it is so important to maintain a sense of family connectedness or belonging during this difficult year. We know that having this sense of connectedness is one of the greatest protective factors for adolescents. Feeling valued, listened to, and safe means that they are more likely to come to you for help with problems than engage in risky or harmful behaviour. If you think about it, this is true for all of us – the more connected we feel to someone else, the more respect we have for them, the less likely we are to do something that would disappoint them or hurt them.
So how do we foster this connectedness and respect? It begins with effective communication – one of the most common complaints I hear from teenagers is that “my parents don’t listen to me”.
Often as parents we’re too keen to jump in with advice or lectures, what WE think they should do or not to do.
Active listening is a way of responding which encourages the other person to continue the conversation while making sure you understand their message. Also make sure you take the time to validate their thoughts and feelings (without dismissing them) and asking them how the problem can be solved- rather than you providing the solution.
'Secretly many young people want their parents to take an interest in their lives.'
The other thing parents forget to do is praising their kids or telling them how proud they are of them when they’re doing, or trying to do, the right thing. Instead often the focus is on the things they’re not doing, or not doing well enough.
Sometimes parents might even threaten them to scare them into action “If you don’t get a good mark you won’t get into uni/won’t get a decent job etc”. Can you imagine how you’d feel if your boss constantly nagged and criticised you – “have you got the report done yet?” I can’t believe it’s taking you so long” “What are you doing with yourself all day?”. How cranky would YOU get? And how much more productive and happier you’d be if you had an encouraging boss – “thanks for the effort you put into that, you did a great job” “I’m really impressed you got that done in time”. It’s the same with kids, nagging doesn’t help – all it does is increase frustration on both sides. Instead they need encouragement to keep going and reassurance that they’re valued. Just a simple “thank you for helping with the dishes” can make all the difference, even if you feel it’s a job they’re expected to do.
Finding activities or interests you can share with your older adolescents can be more challenging, but don’t give up – going for a bike ride together, playing cricket, just asking about their music or being willing to listen to it without sticking your fingers in your ears can help cement those connections.
They may give the impression that you’re the last person they want to spend time with, but secretly many young people want their parents to take an interest in their lives.
2. Keep it in perspective
This is such as important message – help your child keep this year in perspective – it’s fine to encourage them to give it their best shot, but if they don’t get the marks they want it’s not the end of the world – there are many, many pathways to success in life, and believe it or not, life will go on after year 12.
Not every student is suited to going on to University, but that’s not to say they’re not smart. There’s a lot of evidence from neurobiology that indicates our brains are still developing well into our early twenties, and sometimes it takes a few years after school for people to work out what they really want to do with their lives. It can take time - it’s not the end of the world!
During the HSC, not only are teens going through study stress, but also a lot of personal changes.
3. Help them challenge their negative and unhelpful thinking
We all have the propensity for negative self-talk – that little voice in your head that says “it’s too hard”, “I can’t do it”, “I can’t cope” - often the difference between managing stressful situations and not managing comes down to the way we THINK ABOUT those situations – and our thoughts then influence how we FEEL and what we DO. So for instance if your child is thinking to themselves “it’s all too hard”, they will most likely feel miserable and despondent, and will procrastinate by watching TV or getting on facebook. And when we feel down or stressed, we tend to think in unhelpful ways.
When you notice your teen falling into the negative talk trap help them challenge their thinking by asking them these questions:
- What is the evidence for/against this thought?
- What would you say to a good friend in this situation?
- Is it really that bad?
- What else might happen instead? Are there other ways of looking at this?
- Is this way of thinking helpful to you? Does it help you get on and achieve your goals?
4. Look after yourself
And lastly, as parents, it’s also important that you look after yourselves during this year – it’s very easy to let your own anxiety spiral out of control and then impact not only your children but your own health. You can’t do it for them! Let them take responsibility for their own study, and don’t see it as a reflection of your parenting if for whatever reason they can’t buckle down – you may just have one of those late starters that we talked about earlier. Monitor your own self-talk, avoid buying into those destructive HSC myths, and take time for yourself – whether that be exercise, reading, listening to music, gardening etc.
Think of yourself as a bank account – you can’t keep giving out if you don’t put in regular deposits.
The HSC is tough on parents too, so make sure you take time out to look after yourself.
Sometimes just talking to other parents can be reassuring to know you’re not the only one doing it tough. Keep these points in mind, and as the year continues, you will be much better prepared to face those ups and downs of the HSC journey.
Anna is a clinical psychologist at the UTS Health Psychology Unit at St Leonards. She and her colleagues have been helping students, teachers and school staff for many years manage they stress that comes with the HSC. For more information go to their website: www.hpu.uts.edu.au
Further reading for parents: