The usual pointers are not what this article is about. Advice such as turning up to lessons, having their bag packed the night before with all the right books and equipment, starting revision early, and leaving their phone in the other room while they do homework are not what we're going to discuss.
It's important to note that these messages are important and come from a good place. Many of us have learned from experience and we care about our children's future, so these are the things we say.
Although teenagers may hear these messages - and even aspire to them - there are hurdles at this time in the 21st century, such as the pressures of social media and more recently lockdown, that make it a very difficult standard to live up to day in day out. This dichotomy can result in feelings of failure, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and withdrawal - the opposite of how we want to make our young people feel.
So, let's look at what we can do to support, understand, and encourage teenagers in what is a pivotal time in their lives.
The effects of anxiety
A few studies have investigated how feelings of anxiety can impact students. According to Anxiety Research in Educational Psychology, by Sigmund Tobias of City University of New York:
- Anxiety affects learning by impacting the cognitive operations performed to process input
- As a result, less anxious students generally outperform their more anxious counterparts
As to what makes today's teenagers anxious, a lot has been written about the impact of social media and the internet. To quote Brené Brown, "Trying to escape media influences in today's culture is as feasible as trying to protect ourselves from air pollution by not breathing.”
In 2018/19, 30% of calls to Childline – the biggest category - were due to mental and emotional health, with another 7% attributed to bullying and cyberbullying.
Then, in early 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic added another level of anxiety for many, with the rise of online lessons, often without sufficient tech support or moral support because family members and friends were having to manage their own circumstances on their own at the same time.
According to the NSPCC, not being able to go to school or take part in activities outside the family home, had a negative impact on mental health with many feeling 'trapped'. The children's charity also found that having to do schoolwork at home in one place all day had led many young people finding it difficult to concentrate, whilst struggling with motivation, and worrying about their future prospects.
Empathy and compassion
So, what is abundantly clear is that if there is one key message for our school children from the adults in their lives, it should be one of empathy and compassion. The NSPCC recommends encouraging young people to discuss their mental health by creating an open environment where they can freely talk about how they feel.
This involves choosing a time when others aren't around, actively listening to our children and being patient as they talk, and making it clear that we support them. You can find out more here.
We can help by letting them know that there are trusted adults who will respond with a listening ear to help them figure out what to do when uncomfortable feelings arise, or unpleasant things happen.
We can help by acknowledging what is happening to them during this stage of their lives and encourage them to take one day at a time; to be calm now and moving forward, and not freak out about exams that are many months away. We can support by encouraging them to focus on:
- Reigniting good friendships and relationships with parents and extended family members
- Recognising which subjects they are interested in and enjoy
Plus, it can be refreshing to be told that, although Maths and English GCSE are, rightly or wrongly, valued by employees, if these subjects don't come easy, support is available, and soon they will be a thing of the past.
"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Often attributed to Albert Einstein, this quote can remind us how vital is the good mental health of our young people.