Secondary school is an exciting and challenging time for adolescents, and for their parents. But how can you connect with your son or daughter, and support them during this time?
KATE BARBER talks to high-school guidance counsellor KAY HENSON about connecting with our kids.
They are all so wildly and wonderfully different; but, for most young people starting secondary school, anxieties about their ability to cope academically and around establishing new relationships collide with excitement about new friendships, freedoms and opportunities. Yet, having leapt the fence from Year 8 to Year 9, adolescents go from being the senior students and leaders of their primary or intermediate to the new kids on the block: in the breath of a summer, their status changes significantly.
Summer hangs in the air well into Term 1. But the pinch comes as autumn gives way to winter – as assessments pile up and afterschool activities fill the diary, as the days get shorter and colder, and as energy levels diminish.
With winter threatening to squeeze some of the joy and energy out of our precious family time, it feels like time to stop and check in with everyone – and, perhaps, come together for a hearty soup, or maybe a pizza.
Kay Henson is a mother (my mother, in fact) and a grandma, and she devotes a solid chunk of her week to working with young people in her role as a high-school guidance counsellor. She has also worked extensively in the early childhood sector, and so offers a unique perspective on this time of transition and development.
These twelve- and thirteen-year-olds may be the ‘babies’ of the school, but Kay focuses on the layers of experiences, the rich relationships and the diverse interests and skills that young
people bring with them to high school.
‘Children grow up in a world of others’, says Kay – ‘and starting secondary school coincides with a phase where young people are questioning their relationships with others and testing their ideas. As the influence of their peer group grows, adolescents think more about who they are, and what this means in terms of their relationships – with their peers, as well as with members of their families. The challenge lies in being ok with who they are – even if they don’t fit others’ expectations.’
Interestingly, in her work with teenagers, Kay calls on Te Whàriki, the New Zealand Early Childhood Education Curriculum, which is founded on the following aspirations for young children: to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.
But are these aspirations relevant to adolescents? To a disorganised and disengaged Year 9 boy? To an unsettled, highly stressed Year 10 girl? From Kay’s perspective, they are critical.
While we may worry that our children are not confident in a particular subject, or that they do not feel a sense of belonging in a new environment, or that they are not as healthy in spirit as they once were, it is important to think back to children’s strengths, qualities and interests, their relationships and experiences – as class leaders, as sporting stars, as fiercely independent four-year olds, even – and hold onto these foundational aspirations as a way of moving forward.
This period of adolescence can be murky territory for parents. ‘There is so much you might not be able to control’, says Kay, ‘with social media and a larger peer group at school, meaning young people are engaging with people you don’t know’. Where once mum and dad had almost total control over their young children’s social lives, now there are spheres of influence that seem inaccessible to parents.
‘It is about respect, responsibilities and boundaries – and there need to be robust conversations around parental concerns’, says Kay. ‘But these conversations need to be reciprocal and respectful, where parents express their concerns, while listening to their son or daughter, and being reasonable and flexible. Teens want adults to show flexibility. And, they want them to have the ability to mix with their friends. Adults need to be interested in these new relationships.’
Many teenagers are communicative and charming, and keen to test their ideas with adults they trust. But perhaps you’re wondering: how can I possibly have such ‘robust conversations’ when I don’t have a good relationship with my son or daughter? ‘It might sound old-fashioned, but a good starting place is the dining room table, eating together, talking and listening to each other – without technology’, says Kay. ‘A simple thing like chatting in the car together, or while doing the dishes, is also helpful. And it doesn’t need to all be serious. Conversations that build trust and respect will cover many topics and take many directions – because it’s about listening and responding, rather than just going in with an agenda.’
Young people need to have someone to talk with, outside of their peer group, who will listen to them and offer support. ‘Parents may feel that they need to have all the answers. But this isn’t true’, says Kay. ‘When the going gets tough, it is so important that parents acknowledge that they don’t have the answers; that they role-model self-care and reach out for support for themselves.’
It is not easy to nurture connections with your adolescent children when there are layers of issues, such as marital conflict, financial worries, work-related stress, alcohol or substance abuse, or underlying anxiety or depression among family members. ‘It can be all-consuming’, says Kay, ‘and it is vital that parents get the support they need’.
If you are in this situation, and you are concerned about your son or daughter, try to step back and see who else can support your child. ‘Guidance counsellors are able to position themselves differently, and can access other support for students and their families. Your son or daughter may also have a strong rapport with a teacher or sports coach, or with a close family friend or relative, which is invaluable.
‘Sometimes we find ourselves at an awkward crossroads – where we can look at young people from a deficit perspective, thinking about all the problems and the things that they need (but lack) in order to progress and achieve. But we can also think about the resilience factors, the positive influences or experiences they have had, and tap into these as a means of moving forward and coping with challenges along the way.’
Without downplaying the stresses facing young people and their families today, Kay encourages parents to ‘have conversations that are light-hearted, rather than getting bogged down in problem-saturated talk, and [to] think about a time when you were able to connect, where you enjoyed being together – it is never too late to tap back into that.