It's life, but not as you expected it: supporting teens and young people in unpredictable (&exam) times
A few weeks ago my daughter went on study leave for her GCSEs. Well, actually she didn’t: in a parallel, non-pandemic universe, she would have done - but of course nothing is normal this year! But at the point when they would have gone on leave, their teacher handed out something most had forgotten all about: letters they wrote to their year 11 selves several years ago.
And hers was in various places, hilarious (‘I’m really sorry I took triple science, it seemed like a good idea at the time’ and rather sensible (‘I hope by now you are working hard, you probably should be’). But, her over-riding reaction to it was the poignancy of a letter written with no idea whatsoever what the reality of her year 11 world would look like: no concept of a virus that would hit and change our entire world, no way she could know how different life would be by the time she opened and read it, that she wouldn’t even be sitting those formal GCSEs. Her and her friends’ lives have been utterly transformed, their plans disrupted by something totally out of their control.
The impact of this chaotic change and uncertainty on teenagers cannot be denied. I’m so proud of my daughter and her friends and how they have responded to everything life has thrown at them. Because it isn’t just the chance to sit exams that has been stolen: it is, for all ages, missing school, friends or clubs/sports/hobbies, the usual landmark moments in life like birthday parties, and key transition moments. But most of all it is an illusion prematurely taken from them that we can control the key things in our lives. They have had to face a truth difficult even for most adults: life is not always fair and sometimes rubbish happens and there isn’t anything we can do to change it.
In the midst of this, the pressure is showing. Although most teens and young people are coping incredibly well, the raised stress and anxiety is taking a toll, with rates of some mental health problems rising dramatically. And it isn’t surprising that those which have an element of control, such as eating disorders, are the issues seeing the most concerning rise.
But this has been a challenge for parents too. One of the toughest things we’ve faced as parents is not being able to be in control of our children and teens situations. We’ve had our own reactions to that, hitting in a time where many parents are themselves struggling with levels of stress, exhaustion and burnout, and we’ve had to face theirs too. And for others trying to support teenagers: teachers, youth workers, friends and relatives, we’ve been trying to help them manage situations that keep on changing, to find equilibrium in a world so often spinning in unpredictable ways. We’ve been thrown off balance ourselves, and often trying to reach them from a distance, unable to offer the hugs and hangout times they really need.
At times this has been really tough. So - as we head into the summer term with its continued uncertainty and some not quite normal exam periods, here are 5 points to consider as we support them:
1 - Our feelings are not theirs. Be careful of mixing up what YOU feel with what THEY feel. Sometimes we feel things they don’t - younger children and teenagers on the whole adapt better to change than we do as adults and often don’t experience the same anguish we do. Remember, you had dreams or visions of what childhood would look like for your kids; they didn’t. This is just their reality. Teenagers are more impacted by the difference between expectation and reality but this may not hit them in the same way it does you. So where COVID or other circumstances steal dreams you had for them, remember they may not experience the same sense of loss you do. And where your feelings ARE the same as theirs, it won’t help to pile yours ON theirs! If they are feeling panic, or frustration, they need you to HOLD those feelings with them and help them manage them rather than jumping on the same rollercoaster with them! Find your OWN spaces to process your emotion, so you can then help them with theirs. Don’t be afraid to model the need to do this: try something like ‘Gosh it’s hard not to feel panicked by all this isn’t it? I think I need a moment just to think and catch my breath, can we chat in half an hour?’ But do ask yourself the key question: ‘Is this MY feeling or THEIRS?’
2 - Their feelings are valid. As parents in particular it is common to find it hard when our children are struggling or feeling down, sad or anxious. But we can all fall into that trap when its a young person we really care about. This means it is so easy to try to rush over what they are feeling, attempt to jolly them up or slip into denial. ‘It’s not that bad!’ we say ‘Come on, don’t be so negative’ - or 'Don't worry I'm sure it will all be fine' and especially when we have echoing in our mind stories of teenage mental health struggle post pandemic we may be afraid to let them admit to any negative feelings, or allow those conversations space in the room and our own heads. But those feelings are natural, expected and ok. What we need to do is create safe spaces they can share them in a healthy way - and then help them to find ways to manage them and move on - once validated and heard. So try to hold back the instinct to rush past a moment of them sharing - its great that they feel able to bring that to you.
3 - They may not be able to control everything but they are not doomed! This is so important because its how they may feel! Emotions can be contagious so avoid getting drawn into that sense of panic and inevitability. Take a deep breath and help them figure out how they are going to respond to a difficult situation. Giving them space to express is about balance - they need to feel heard and release what they are feeling without becoming drawn into wallowing, despair, or narratives of helplessness. Remember that the media tells the most negative perspective because that is what gets people’s attention. There are better stories to tell. Find them! Make them! And remember - life is not all black or all white - even in a tough, out of control situation you can help them find moments of life and laughter.
4 - Resist the temptation to Seize Back Control! Remember with older children and teens - where possible we can help them grow their own awareness of their ability to influence their situation by helping them solve things THEMSELVES. A great question is ‘How can I help you to solve this?’ Resist the temptation to take control yourself - especially when they seem to be in a situation that is out of control. Of course there’s a point where we step in - and it is fine to make suggestions - but where possible if we can help them to do things that move things forwards well we’re teaching them fantastic life lessons.
5 - Be encouraged. It’s easy to read the news at the moment and think our children and young people are going to be destroyed by the challenges they face and a world which has been so very out of control for them in the last year. But research looking at generations or groups of young people who have faced significant challenge reveals that on the whole they are not devastated by it. It is just as possible that what they learn as they are forced to dig deep is something about just how much they can do even in tough times. Their adaptability, creativity and flexibility puts them in a great place to respond well - with a bit of support. Remember resilience isn’t about never facing challenge - it is about how you respond to challenge. So help them to shape that, remind them that there are still some things they can change and help them learn that the most important thing: happiness and good things of life are things that are much more under our control than we sometimes think.
And remember - watch out for overwhelm. One of the toughest things for teens studying right now is unexpected changes or difficult news may hit in moments where they are already right at their limit, snowed under, tired, heads full of information or already anxious about coming exams. This means in the moment things hit they are very likely to hit overwhelm. Watch out for the signs of this: crying, or powerful emotions, sentences like 'I can't do this' or 'It's too much'. In those moments resist the temptation to try to rationalise: overwhelmed minds have turned down the thinking, problem solving brain and gone onto emergency mode. Instead do something to help them drop their stress level: make a cuppa, take them out for a walk to clear their head, help them put on some music that calms them or practice a breathing exercise or (if they're up for it) pray together. Even when they have calmed, don't leap straight into an intense conversation: try to do something fun or lift the mood somehow (we find talking about Line of Duty very helpful!). Plan a time together to talk strategy or think about the more serious stuff but help them to manage in the moment and give them the time and space they need. It may help to prepare: at the moment in our household I try to make sure I will be available in that half hour when my children get back from school as they often need someone to be the other end of a conversation that helps them express, process or distract from a difficult day.
And don't forget - if you need more info and resources check out our online space for teens and young people - Headstrong - full of articles, videos and resources to help them manage whatever life is throwing at them - and to remind them that tough times don't need to mean all is lost.
In particular - if you know a teen who is feeling like life is spinning out of control, you might want to send them this recent video.