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New school year: supporting teenagers

By Nicola Morgan

Nicola Morgan is an international expert on teenage brains, learning and wellbeing. Here she picks out some advice for parents and teachers to support teenagers going into a new school year.

To properly support young people, we need to understand and acknowledge their emotions and thoughts. We too often dismiss fears: “Don’t be silly – you’ll be fine.” “Don’t be silly- everyone goes through this.” “Don’t be silly – it’s part of growing up! It’s exciting!” Failure to accept the feelings someone is trying to express is unhelpful. Counselling begins with properly hearing and reflecting what you hear.
 

So, what’s going on in the minds of many young people facing a new school year?

Change. Change can be exciting and positive, when it’s change we choose and can control. Teenagers experience myriad changes – physical, mental, neural, social – which they haven’t chosen and can’t control. (See Positively Teenage)

Many changes are most obvious as summer holidays end. They have grown, so they need new clothes. They may not like this growth: neuroscience shows that self-consciousness and embarrassment are especially strong for teenagers. (See Body Brilliant) They are worried about seeing people who caused trouble last year. Will friends have changed?

One of the things that changes in adolescence is fear: the nature of it and how it can (or can’t) be soothed. Young children have fears that can often be simply soothed: either a fear of something that we can truthfully say won’t happen or of something we can distract them from or reassure with a white lie. We can protect with a shell. But teenagers know bad things can happen so we can’t reassure them otherwise. 

One thing teenagers often fear is independence. Yes, they might say they can’t wait not to have you bossing them around, but they also see that adult life is hard: jobs, money, housing, relationships, children etc. Each new school year takes them a step towards that.

Those factors existed for us but modern life makes them more powerful, with pressure and fear turbo-boosted by life online. Whether it’s parents seeing the public successes of other teenagers, the government pushing everyone to university, repeated images and stories of atrocities, or endemic negativity about how tough life is, they can’t escape the repetition of stressful pressurising messages: you’re not doing well enough, you face a tough life, everything is going to hell in a handcart.
 

How can we help young people approach the school year with excitement more than anxiety?

Advice for parents

  1. Avoid catastrophising. Whether it’s your fear of Brexit, war or climate change or your real personal worries, try to keep your home a sanctuary when you possibly can, being as supportive, positive and upbeat as possible. I know this will sometimes be beyond hard, but even trying will help. 
  2. Acknowledge every feeling. Say “I’m really sorry you’re feeling like this. I’m here for you. I believe you will cope and it will be much easier than you fear. Can we think of some things that might help?”
  3. Educate about anxiety: it’s an entirely natural, positive raising of alertness which allows people to perform well. You don’t want to be feeling anxious when trying to get to sleep and it’s important to learn to control it, but it’s not something to fear or avoid. (See Positively Teenage and find lots of helpful resources at www.nicolamorgan.com)
  4. Build fun into every day, to distract and to raise mood. Consider: favourite foods for tea, cooking together, cinema trips or a family video session, a board game, getting friends round, watching sport, any kind of family activity – the more active the better!
  5. Encourage reading for pleasure – a scientifically proven but under-rated stress-busting and mood-enhancing activity. Your library has everything and is free! (See www.nicolamorgan.com for Readaxation.) It will also keep their brain working well. Many teenagers will actually enjoy reading around their subjects, too, so ask a librarian for ideas. (But remember: pleasure = pleasure!)
  6. Help them get organised for school: new stationery; a wall-planner; school diary; new pencil case. Make it fun and exciting. Treat them if you can afford it. Lots of places have very cheap stationery. Ask a relative if they’d like to buy something for school.
  7. Always let your child or teenager know you’re there for any worry they want to share at any time they want to – and put your phone totally out of sight and switched off when they are talking to you!
  8. Don’t over-worry. 

Advice for teachers
  1. Note the advice above, especially points 1, 3 and 5.
  2. Try to hear their fears – which may be disguised as disaffection – and address rather than dismiss.
  3. If you have students with weak home support (or too much pressure from home), speak to them on the first day and let them know the school support channels. In fact, clarify these channels to all students. Let them know the school is there for them.
  4. In your effort to pep them for a year of working brilliantly, be aware that some will rise to the challenge while others will be easily daunted and decide they can’t match to your expectations. 
  5. Teach your students about good goal-setting. You will probably know the principles of ‘SMART’ goal-setting but there’s a clear explanation for students in Positively Teenage. 
  6. Remind them that every daunting journey begins and continues with small steps. Discuss stories they’ve read of actual long journeys.
  7. Be confident – and share that confidence – that your teaching is excellent. All they need to do is listen, engage, ask when they don’t understand, and keep up with the tasks you set. 

Each new year is a jumble of exciting and frightening. You are there beside them or behind them but not helicoptering above to do everything for them or prevent them from learning from mistakes. You are a safety-net: enabling them to fall safely and pick themselves up to try again, learn from any mistakes and find their own success. 

Nicola Morgan
 
Nicola Morgan is the award-winning author of books such as Blame My Brain, The Teenage Guide to Stress, Positively Teenage and Body Brilliant. Her next title with Hachette Children’s Books is Exam Attack, publishing September 2020. Her website is full of advice and resources – including teaching materials – for parents, schools and teenagers. She is the recipient of the School Library Association’s Outstanding Contribution to Information Books Award and her books are widely displayed in school libraries. She gives talks to students and parents and training to professionals all around the world. www.nicolamorgan.com


 

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