I would like to share some of my views with parents about helping our adolescents deal with school pressures. You might have heard of this parable of the monkey and the fish.
Once upon a time a monkey and a fish were caught in a terrible flood and were being swept downstream amidst torrents of water and debris. The monkey spied a branch from an overhanging tree and pulled himself to safety from the swirling water.
Then, wanting to help his friend – the fish, he reached into the water and pulled the fish from the water onto the branch. Well, the moral of the story is clear: Good intentions are not enough. If you wish to help the fish, you must understand its nature.
By the same token, if we want to help our teenagers to deal with school pressures and their life, we need to understand a number of factors which might be contributing to the building up of the pressure within them.
Firstly, we need to work out where the pressure or anxiety comes from in the school situation. The first one may be coming from parents. Some parents may have high expectations of their adolescents when they are in high school especially for some approaching the HSC, particularly in migrant families as parents would like their children to excel and have a successful career in this country.
Some parents might want their adolescents to help them fulfil their own dream, in which they could not accomplish their career goal as a migrant. It went without notice that when parents told them they would like them to enter this profession or constantly criticise them for trivial mistakes. Over time this would be ingrained in the adolescent’s brain and they will internalise these voices in their head telling themselves that they have to work hard and not to disappoint their parents. Later they might generalise these critics to other situations such as telling themselves that they should not let their group members down, their teachers, friends in the team sport etc. Girls with this thinking might generalise it to their body image. When these problem situations flare up, it is time consuming to help them manage it including accessing external resources such as seeing a psychologist to work on their distorted thinking patterns.
Second factor could be coming from their teachers. Nowadays, school principals give the teaching staff enormous pressure and extra responsibilities in addition to teaching, in order to match the pay rise commitment every three years, as well as the current education reform. Teachers need to meet their teaching goals every week according to their programs. The school may give the teaching staff pressure to improve the HSC results, as well as the Naplan Test every year. Many teachers suffer from anxiety and depression, and when they are under stress, they might transfer this stress to students in terms of high expectations, unrealistic goals, etc.
Another factor is that teenagers may also get pressure from their peers. Some teenagers who attend selective high schools or selective classes may compare and compete themselves with their peers. If they have inherited high expectations from their parents, they may always feel inferior or not feel good enough, when comparing themselves to their peers. Even in mainstream high schools, some teenagers may be streamed to a high achiever Maths class. They need to perform to a high standard otherwise they are put back in their original class if they do not meet the expectations.
Some teenagers may exhibit perfectionism or have unrelenting standards. They relentlessly strive for extremely high standards, and judge their self-worth based largely on their ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards. They often feel like what they accomplish is never good enough. These teenagers usually have parents with high expectations of their children. It would be preferable if parents set a role model for their children and demonstrate to them occasionally that failure is part of life, e.g. dropping the plate on the floor, missing the train, etc. Family therapy may be a good resource for family members exhibiting perfectionism or unrelenting standards.
To help them manage normal school pressures, these are the following strategies that may help parents alleviate the school pressure for their teens.
• Encourage them to form a routine on weekdays and weekend so that they can use time wisely and effectively. Once they form a routine, it will help them organise their study and school work more effectively. This will also assist them to avoid procrastination as people tend to put off their work to a later time, and then at the end try to rush through their work at the last minute.
• Remind them to avoid having an afternoon nap as this will affect their sleep when they go to bed. If they really feel tired, just close their eyes and sit on the lounge for 15 minutes as this will only allow them to enter into the light sleep stage within the circadian sleep cycle, and they will wake up easily. On the contrary if they have slept for one and a half hours or more, it would be difficult for them to get up as they are in the fifth stage of Rapid Eye Movement, and get tired when they wake up.
• Have a balance of their school life. It would be better for teenagers to spread their time evenly such as having some sport activities on the weekend, participating in church groups, doing activities with parents and siblings together, as well as connecting with their friends in the school holidays on top of putting time aside to study and complete their assignments. During holidays parents can involve them to help plan a holiday itinerary to help them develop sense of belonging and ownership.
• At times some teenagers might have lost their motivation and would not self-initiate any motivation at all. Parents are required to talk to them, and work out the reasons behind it. Seeing a psychologist to help them work out their motivation is crucial and imminent.
• In addition, parents should validate their child’s effort on everything they do at home and at school by giving them encouragement and positive support. Positive support and encouragement should replace criticism. Overtime, this will help them develop self-confidence and high self-esteem as this will help equip them with self-worth and resilience.
• Parents are encouraged to speak with their teenagers’ Year adviser about how they perform and behave at school as well as participating in the Parent Teacher interview at the end of the semester. By doing so, any students with learning difficulties or underachievers may be able to access some early intervention programs to prevent further failure or deterioration of school progress in the near future.
Last but not the least these are some some simple strategies to work with teenagers:
• Positive self talk
• Positive reframing
• Try to be calm
• Understand the strengths of your child and yourself
• Identify the protective and risk factors in your family, i.e. what helps and what does
not help to promote resilience and wellbeing in the family.
• Strategies to manage stress such as breathing exercise, mindfulness skills, relaxation
• Help build up our teenagers’ self-esteem, i.e. more validation, positive reinforcement
Just imagine your teenager in 5 years time. Things are going very well. What would they say they appreciated about what you did as their parent?