The challenges of being a school leaver… or living with one!

Living with a teenager

There’s no question that for many Australian families having a teenager in the final year of their schooling is stressful.  As 2019 moves towards the second term of the school year it may be timely to consider some simple strategies that students (and their parents) may undertake to relieve or even prevent some of the end of year stress.

The final year of a young person’s school life is a milestone, as momentous as the first year was. For some it will be a launching pad into their adult life, whether that means embarking on further tertiary education or plunging into the work force. For others it may be a time of confusion and anguish, with anxiety about pending exams and worry over what will come next.

Some teenagers reach their final school year focused and ready to take on the world, but many are unsure about what they want to do after they leave school, and struggle to balance both external and internal pressures. External pressures, such as parental and school expectations, as well as competition from peers can lead to increased feeling of stress and anxiety. Social pressures also play a huge role at this age and relationships are often prioritised over schoolwork.  Internal pressures may include negative self-talk, low self-esteem and fear of failure, and this combination can lead to apparent procrastination as the student becomes paralysed by their own anxiety.  Not only is this stressful for the young person, but also for everyone they live with.

Here are some tips for your teenager to help them manage stress and keep positive perspective. Of course, parents can have a go too.

  • Discover your strengths. Acknowledge what you do well, instead of agonizing over what you think you do badly.  The nature of school assessments is that they tend to draw attention to one’s weaknesses. But studies have shown that better results are achieved by focusing on what you do well.  Seligman & Peterson’s Values in Action Project (VIA) has led to the identification of 24 human character traits that were valued equally across cultures (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). From this study they developed an online self-test (go to viacharacter.org). Why not invest 20 mins in self-discovery? Take the free test to identify the top 5 of your 24 “core strengths”, then use them in new and innovative ways when studying subjects that may not come naturally to you. For example, if one of your strengths is “Creativity” and you find yourself struggling with remembering formulae in Chemistry or dates in History, you can use your creativity to develop new ways to jog your memory.

It’s also helpful to change your perspective: rather than having strengths and weaknesses, consider that you have strengths that you use a lot, and other strengths that you may neglect because they don’t energise you, so you don’t like to use them.  Learning how to develop these neglected strengths is an important life skill, because continued development of character doesn’t stop when you leave school.

  • Take time to do things you’re passionate about. We mostly enjoy doing things that we’re good at.  And being good at doing something makes us feel good about our self. In fact, not only do we enjoy such activities but we also get a sense of what is known in Positive Psychology as “Flow” (Csikszentmihalyi M, 1990).  Flow is a state in which one is intensely focused on the present moment andfully immersed in a feeling of energised concentration.  There might be a sense that time stands still or, more often that it passes faster than it actually does. And the end goal is often just an excuse for the process; so doing is more rewarding than finishing. You might get this feeling from playing a musical instrument, going for a run, painting, solving a maths problem, or anything that gives you a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment.  Flow experiences leave us feeling more capable and skilled, more together than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and the world in general – ready to face the hard slog ahead (and to be nice to the people we live with). Find your flow activity and engage in it often to restore your energy and motivation for doing the things you may not wish to but know you must.

But take care: there is a delicate balance between the challenge and a person’s skill level. If the challenge is not enough, boredom sets in, and if too great, anxiety may result. Make sure your Flow activity is reducing your stress, not increasing it.

  • Learn to be mindful. Mindfulness is remembering that all you really ever have is the present moment, and that your life is made up of lots of “present moments”. Too often we live in a state of rehashing (the past) and rehearsing (the future), one of which is gone and the other hasn’t happened yet. Teenagers, in particular, never really live in the present because they’re always planning the next thing they’re about to do; or they’re “multi-tasking” – writing an assignment whilst on Facebook, texting their friends and watching TV (all at once!)  As Jon Kabot-Zinn says, we’ve become “Human Doings” instead of “Human Beings” (Kabot-Zinn J, 1996).

Small children know how to be mindful, if we let them.  Just watch a child playing with dolls and talking to their imaginary friends, or blowing detergent bubbles and watching them fly off to the heavens, or eating their favourite food and discovering its texture by squeezing it through their hands or rubbing in on their cheeks! They are totally engrossed in the moment, not in what was, or what may be later, but what is now.  Why not engage your “inner child” and acknowledge what you are doing right now, in the present: whether that is simply eating a meal or going for a walk or driving a car, being Mindful is about enjoying and savouring that moment, doing just one thing at a time.

Yet Mindfulness can be even more than just being aware of and appreciating your surroundings.  It also allows you to discover your intuitive self, that part of you beyond thought, beyond emotions, where your “gut feeling” resides. It teaches you to tune into and trust that sixth sense in the pit of your belly, the one that rarely leads you astray.  A survey done on how successful business people make important decisions found that the majority placed high value on these intuitive feelings.  They described how they would collect as much objective information as they could, analyse the data, speak to relevant people; but after processing all this, the final decision would rest on whether the feeling in their “gut”, their intuition, was supportive of the facts and figures.

For students, learning to listen to your inner wisdom may guide you to look after your physical self by eating correctly, incorporating healthy activity into your routine and ensuring you get enough restful sleep.  It may also teach you to believe in your ability to do the best work that you’re capable of doing.  For the student’s family, learning to be Mindful may help you learn to respond thoughtfully rather than react to any rise in emotional temperature in the household as exams get closer.

  • Incorporate a stress-reduction activity, such as meditation, into your daily routine. Constant stress plays havoc with our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – the part of us that regulates our internal environment based on feedback from the external environment.  The ANS has two arms: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is the body’s accelerator, and responds to danger by engaging functions that would be required to fight or flee from a situation, such as increased respiration, pulse rate and blood pressure, reduced digestive and reproductive hormones. It prepares the body for physical action.  The counterbalance is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), the body’s braking system. The PNS prepares the body for rest by reducing respiration, pulse rate and blood pressure and engaging production of digestive and reproductive hormones.

But here’s the thing: your body’s accelerator, the SNS, responds to imagination in the same way as to reality.  This means that a perceived danger or threat, such as the looming deadline for an assignment or exam, may switch on the SNS as effectively as a real spider on the bedroom wall.  When such stress is sustained for long periods of time, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol may play havoc with the immune system, thereby increasing one’s susceptibility to illness.

The good news is that the PNS can also be activated by thoughts.  Thinking about pleasant events, even when they’re long gone, can make us feel physically better and more relaxed, so what we put in our head is as important as what we feed our body.  Most stress reduction programs focus on teaching people how to be selective in what they feed their mind, replacing the diet of junk thoughts with constructive, positive ones.

Meditation is a particularly effective way of training the mind how to manage strong thoughts and feelings.  In spite of its resurgence in popularity in recent years, there are still many misconceptions about Meditation, with some non-meditators incorrectly describing it as “sitting and doing nothing”, “same as sleeping” or “concentrating very hard”. In fact Meditation is a tool to enhance self-awareness, develop compassion for self and others, and gain insight and wisdom.

It’s also an excellent PNS stimulator, the rest and relax response.  Many studies have shown that regular meditation not only lowers blood pressure, heart and respiration rate but it also helps to organise the brain, improve focus and memory and increase creativity.  Numerous scientific studies have now been conducted on the physiological and psychological benefits of Meditation, including studies that show that the bundle of nerves connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain (the corpus callosum) is thicker in regular meditators than in non-meditators. This leads to improved communication between the brain hemispheres in these individuals, resulting in enhanced brain coherence and improved concentration.

For the student, regular Meditation will improve focus and concentration, and enhance sleep. For those living with a student, regular Meditation helps develop patience, build compassion and facilitates the creation of a calm environment.

  • Develop your positivity. Sure, positive emotions feel good.  But current research shows that they do much more than that! Barbara Frederickson proposes that the ability to experience complex positive emotions beyond physical pleasures or comfort has provided humans with a vital evolutionary advantage (Fredrickson B, 2001).  Her research suggests that just as negative emotions narrow our attention on the problem at hand, positive emotions broaden our perspective.  This means that we are better able to think outside of the square to solve problems rather than confront the issue head-on.

Negative emotions increase our feelings of stress, and stress reduces creativity by putting blinkers on our ability to see past the problem (or perceived problem). Positive emotions, on the other hand, remove our blinkers, give us that “warm and fuzzy” feeling, and encourage us to consider “possibilities”.  This enhances lateral thinking, problem solving and creativity, which have obvious benefits for any student.

There are many ways to enhance Positivity, including developing optimism, focusing on your strengths, keeping a gratitude journal, being mindful of your self-talk (that voice in your head) and meditating regularly.  Learning compassion and kindness towards yourself and others has also been shown to increase Positivity.

Practiced regularly, whether you’re a student or not, the activities in this article will enhance your sense of well-being.  Inevitably, life has its ups and downs and some circumstances may be out of your control.  But not your reaction to life’s challenges – that’s completely within your control. By developing your emotional resilience you can learn to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively to challenging situations. As Kabot-Zinn says, “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”!

References:
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990) Flow: the Psychology of Optimal ExperienceHarper Perennial
Fredrickson, B (2001) The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology
Kabot-Zinn, Jon (1996) Full Catastrophe Living: using the wisdom of your body & mind to face stress, pain & illnessBantam Double Dell
Peterson, C & Seligman, M (2004) Character Strengths & Virtues

 


Judith Lissing BSc (hons), MPH, Dip Clin Hyp Psych is a Scientist, Mindfulness Trainer and Clinical Hypnotherapist/Psychotherapist. She is also a Writer, Speaker and Keynote at Corporate events. Judith is the Principal and CEO of Mind Coaching Australia. At Mind Coaching Australia our goal is to help individuals and organisations to flourish and achieve their best potential by developing mental strength and emotional resilience.

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