Love E x
P.S. Thanks for reading. Proper blogging again later this week.
How to de-stress your teenager.
From exams to social media, young people have stress coming at them from all angles. What can parents do to help?
It’s exam season again and it’s only February. This time it is mocks for our middle son, who’s 17 (we have three boys, who are 13, 17 and 19). He’s “vibesing” them, rather than revising for them, which I think means he’s going with the flow, not killing himself doing flat-out revision. That’s fine by me.
From where I’m sitting, here at our family kitchen table surrounded by GCSE and A-level study aids, teenagers in 2016 have stress coming at them from all angles. First, there’s the pressure to do well at school, to achieve outstanding GCSE, AS and A-level results, to bag multiple offers from Russell group universities, while also being accomplished in extracurricular activities such as sport and music, and trekking the Atlas mountains for the DofE Gold (Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, for the uninitiated). Then there’s peer pressure and social media pressure heaped on them as well.
I went to my middle son’s school sixth-form awards evening recently. After the event, I quizzed my son and some of his friends. “Life is stressful,” said one 17-year-old girl, who didn’t want to be identified, but let’s call her Issy. “Literally all anyone cares about at school is your results . . . I burnt out doing my GCSEs, and I’ve never really got it back. I feel anxious all the time. I find it difficult to sleep. I never really switch off. I went to the doctor about it and I told him I don’t even know why.”
It’s not just the teens who are stressed, it is their parents as well. A mum of three teenagers I was moaning to recently came out with the exact same thing, calling her daughter “a Duracell Bunny”, who never stops. “I can see it all simmering under the surface, all the time. I wasn’t prepared for how relentless the work was going to be, from GCSEs right through to A levels, constant pressure for four years.”
I don’t want to come over all “in my day” about this, but in my day (the 1980s), being a teenager just wasn’t like this. We muddled along, somewhere between swotty and New Romantic. I spent my youth down the village pub, drinking rum and black, dashing off A-level essays in registration on Mondays, seconds before “Sir” arrived.
Most of us did a bit of work, acquired a few half-decent A levels, which was more than adequate to get into a half-decent university, then went on to get a half-decent job. There was very little pressure. No university fees in those days, which now turn the future into a massive gamble. And no internet, social media or mobile phone either.
“Even when she’s studying, the phone is there next to her and the texts and alerts are coming through,” the mum tells me. “Sometimes I feel the phone is an extension of her hand. She’s always on social media, there’s no let-up, even on holiday.”
Issy, too, admits to finding social media stressful and a distraction, getting into arguments on Twitter late at night in her bedroom when ideally she should be winding down, or finishing that essay. “We get into arguments about politics,” she says. “The bombing of Syria vote was a big night. And then there’s such a culture of degrading women on Twitter. It’s quite subtle, but so prominent . . . slut-shaming. I don’t know why we have the word slut. Showing flesh, sleeping around, I don’t know why people care about that.”
So why don’t you leave Twitter, I ask. She looks aghast. “Because then I wouldn’t know what’s going on.”
Of course, hand in hand with constant posting on social media goes the risk of making a mistake. Unlike an ill-judged remark, or a snog with the wrong boy at a disco, which is about as far as it went . . . yes, “in my day”, a mistake on social media has the power to haunt publicly the sorry, underaged perpetrator for years.
Could it be academic pressure, combined with peer pressure, exacerbated by social media pressure, that’s causing so many teens to buckle? The number of young people with depression doubled between the 1980s and 2000s, according to the children and young people’s mental health charity YoungMinds. And besides depression, or possibly as a result of it for some teens, there’s risk-taking. Which parent of a teenager doesn’t have a scary anecdote concerning sexting, parties out of control, legal highs, or binge drinking? (I’m not allowed to mention my sons’ transgressions here, of course, so let’s gloss over the traffic cone/sink full of sick in the bathroom incident.)
“I recently took a blade off a girl in PE,” says Issy. “She’d made it from a pencil sharpener. She had cut marks all up her arms.”
About 25 per cent of young people self-harm on at least one occasion, most commonly by cutting, according to statistics supplied by YoungMinds. Boys are as vulnerable as girls, they explain, but tend not to turn their emotions in on themselves in the same way. Getting into fights, deliberately getting hurt, these can all be manifestations of self-harming.
So what can we, the loving and concerned parents of teenage children, do to help to manage all this stress? I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do have, at the time of writing, three pretty chilled-out children. In part, I think this is because they’re boys and not much worried about what other people think, not so eager to please, as girls appear to be. But also, perhaps, it’s about what I, and their father, don’t do. We don’t nag them about work. We don’t try and live our lives through them. Their successes and failures are their own. Above all else, I think it’s important to talk, talk, talk. Maybe this is the key. And talk comes cheap, we can all do that.
Sitting in the audience at that sixth-form awards evening, waiting for my son’s turn to go up, I had to resist the urge to shout out: “Just grab the stupid award and run! And keep on running, like Forrest Gump, as far as your impossibly skinny pubescent legs can carry you, until you flop down exhausted somewhere far from school and weep for all the innocent pre-internet, pre-selfie, pre-A levels that take over your whole life, fun you’ve never had! Then go off and find a nice little village pub and order a rum and black.”
Except obviously I didn’t because I hope my son knuckles down to his A levels when the time comes, gets good grades and goes on to university, like his older brother did. And, more importantly, I hope he manages to get through it all without cracking under the stress. Fingers crossed.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @doesnotdoit and on her blog at idontknowhowshedoesntdoit.blogspot.co.uk
The expert guide for parents
Avoiding stress is all about building mental resilience, according to the clinical psychologist Tanya Byron. “It’s a life skill,” she says, explaining that high EQ (emotional intelligence) is a stronger marker of success, both professional and personal, than high IQ. Here are five ways to help teenagers to develop emotional intelligence and become less stressed.
Remember that emotions are contagious “Remaining calm yourself is vital,” says Janey Downshire, the parenting expert and author of Teenagers Translated. “So be a safe haven psychologically for your child.” Emotions are contagious and children will mirror yours. Don’t let their stress get to you so that you end up in a mutual spiral of anxiety.
Turn off screens an hour before bed “Sleep is incredibly important,” says Byron. Teenagers nowadays are often engaged 24 hours a day with work, screens and mobile phones. Looking at a screen late at night interferes with melatonin and keeps the mind from switching off. There’s a temptation to overwork and over-revise, especially for perfectionist girls. However, a good night’s sleep is vital for laying down memory, so encourage them to go to sleep at a reasonable hour. “No screen time for at least an hour before sleep,” says Byron.
Get high on exercise Sport and exercise are helpful because the dopamine released when we play together — with the regular deep breathing that results — counteracts the effects of stress and produces a “feel good” or high. Downshire explains that exercise is not just about endorphins, but also a form of mindfulness. “Being aware of yourself in that moment, putting breathing and the body into something regular rather than working at a mental level.”
Byron recommends downloading a mindfulness app — Headspace — on to your teen’s phone to help them to switch off, find balance and learn how to regulate their emotions. “When we’re anxious our brain becomes our bully,” she explains. “We don’t have to believe everything we think.”
Work in 45-minute bursts When it comes to revising, Byron suggests tackling tricky subjects early in the day and leaving easier ones until later, when energy is low, and encouraging lots of breaks. “Forty-five-minute bursts of revision are long enough,” she says. “And make sure there are periods when your child switches off completely.” Downshire agrees, emphasising the importance of other activities, such as going out with friends, having a long bath, reading, listening to or playing music (music has the power to numb psychological pain, she says) or just going for a brisk walk, are great ways to relax if undertaken without a mobile phone to hand.
Beware perfectionism Byron and Downshire warn about the drive for perfectionism, which can lead to a defeatist mindset. Phrases such as “I’m bad at . . .”, “I can’t do that . . .” and “I always fail at . . .” should ring alarm bells. To combat this, help your child to set their own realistic and achievable academic goals, rather than having them set by others (eg, school or peer pressure). Then be sure to praise your child when these goals are achieved or exceeded, which more often than not they will be.