Interview with Amanda Dewinter.
What sort of different support do students and their parents need compared to younger children?
As hard as it is for children to transition though the teenage years, it’s hard for parents to adjust to and come to terms with it. As our child moves towards independence, it can sometimes feel we’re having to negotiate every step of the way. We’re constantly having to make decisions about what’s worth fighting over and what isn’t; the whole experience not only frustrates them but completely wears us down. Add on to all this the challenges of studying and exams, which they are often not well equipped to deal with, and the relationship between parent and child can be seriously tested. Parents and teenagers need more emotional and psychological support rather than the physical and practical support they need when children are younger.
What are your clients’ most common challenges?
The most common challenge I see is students and their parents feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with everything on their plate. They have got to the point where they have lost all sense of perspective. They are so pre-occupied with the most urgent problem that they find it hard to step back and see the bigger picture. This makes it difficult to identify the real problems and find ways to solve them. Once they can take a step back, recharge and gain perspective, they are able to work out how best to move forward.
How do you help students and their parents navigate life?
It’s not easy to navigate life as a parent of teenagers at the best of times but when faced with big challenges, including studying and exams, stress is inevitable and while stress can help us, too much really doesn’t bring out the best in us. The summer months, when the exam season is thankfully over and next year’s hurdles seem a long way off are the ideal time reflect and prepare for what comes next. Here are three suggestions to help navigate the year ahead:
- Invest in strengthening the relationship with your child.
The exam period itself is stressful for both parent and student, so once it’s over, it’s important to nurture and if necessary repair the relationship. If your child always sees you stressed, even after the exams, this will be detrimental to both of you. Do whatever you can to recharge your own batteries so that you’ve got something left to give. Spend as much one-to-one time with your child, at a time when you are both more relaxed and do things together you both enjoy. You’ll be stocking up your relationship bank which will pay off next time you’re faced with a stressful situation.
- Help your child find their own intrinsic motivation.
Challenges are far easier to deal with when we embrace them rather than fight against them. Studying is demanding, exams are a big challenge, especially when the results determine the opportunities open to you. To help students embrace the challenges, they need to find their own intrinsic motivation. This could be anything from wanting to go to university, to wanting to pursue a particular career, live a certain lifestyle, have their independence, be like a person they admire or wanting to make you proud.
If they’re low on intrinsic motivation, it’s going to be an uphill struggle all the way. You’ll spend the year nagging them to study, they’ll spend the time ignoring you. So, if your child is low on intrinsic motivation, use the summer to explore ways to inspire them. They may find inspiration from Love Island or Fortnite, but it’s far more likely to come from further afield.
What are they showing an interest in? What untapped areas could you help them develop? Help them to expand their horizons and discover new things. Get them to visit new places, university towns, interesting places, galleries, museums, exciting concerts, thought-provoking plays, sporting events and talks. Introduce them to new people and different cultures, travel to new places and take them into different work places. Get them to try new activities and interests. You’re simply trying to ignite a spark, encourage them to find something that excites them and giving them their own reasons to want to achieve. The more engaged they are with life and excited about what the world has to offer, the more they will find the drive and ambition they need to succeed.
- Strategically plan for the year ahead
We are so relieved the stresses of exams are over, we try to forget about it for another year. This is short-sighted, however, and you can pre-empt some of the stresses and worries of the year ahead by taking a more strategic approach. Be more proactive in planning and preparing for what’s to come, rather than always being in trouble-shooting mode. Just as you plan ahead at work, use these skills to strategically plan ahead with your child.
Much of the exam stress is a result of students neglecting to prepare well enough. They start revision too late, leaving it until the exam date is within sight, whereas they should be preparing before the first term even begins.
Help them to set goals, devise a time management plan, set up systems for filing work and prepare where they’re going to study. Help them plan how they’re going to look after their well-being, for example enjoy good friendships, join a gym, eat well, sleep more, and help them establish good habits. The more your child plans for the year ahead, the less stressful it will be when it comes to the exam period next time round.
How could parents of students be supported better at work?
Teenagers need their parents. They need their love, support, guidance, boundaries and role modelling. It can be emotionally draining to be there for your child, to listen to their problems and be supportive and non-judgemental. It’s hard to keep negotiating those tricky decisions that constantly come up. Workplaces must encourage a work-life balance for all parents, along with everyone with caring responsibilities. The workplace needs to be a place where people can feel fulfilled and energised rather than stressed and depleted, so that parents have the energy left to deal with the other areas of their lives. All the new initiatives that employers are offering to support parents and prioritise their mental wellbeing are to be applauded. Boundaries in terms of time spent in the office and access out of hours must be respected.
Can you offer any advice to students and parents facing the emotional departure to university in September?
Going away to university is a big transition. For some students, it’s the best thing that has ever happened to them, they may go with friends or make friends quickly and soon fit into uni life. For others, it’s a much harder transition, particularly for those who get in through clearing and may end up somewhere different from where they planned. As the student numbers grow –over 50% of young adults are now going to university – the resources to support their wellbeing has not been keeping up and universities are slowly waking up to the fact that they have to do more to help students cope. But it’s also up to us as parents to make sure our children are ready for the independence of university life. If you’re in doubt, encourage them to take some time out, maybe a gap year, or certainly spend the summer building up their independence and ability to cope.
Parents have mixed feelings when their children go off to university. I felt the time was right for my children to fly the nest and have some independence – I remember how much I loved the independence of living away from home for the first time – and I was just happy for them to have that experience. I didn’t worry about not seeing them much as it never seemed long before they were home at the weekend with a bag full of washing.
For some parents, however, it’s a huge wrench, particularly if it leaves a big gap in their lives or if they themselves didn’t go to university or enjoy the experience. Children leaving home, even if only temporarily, is a loss and a big transition. Give yourself the time to take care of yourself. Now is the time to focus on you, something you’ve forgotten about having spent so many years putting your children first. But more than that, enjoy the peace while it lasts; terms are short, students are more likely to return to live at home after university now more than ever before and they will hopefully come back as decent, mature, more thoughtful young adults. A somewhat fractious relationship with your teenager can improve as the tensions dissipate when they move out and a new, better, adult relationship can begin.
You can follow Amanda on twitter @amandadewinter