Many families face transitions at this time of year: new schools, leaving school, embarking on a GAP year, starting university or a new job. When change is accompanied by optimism and excitement, then things tend to roll forward without mishap, but some parents may be faced with a child who is dragging their heels or behaving out of character. Bad moods and apathy are driven by feelings of anxiety, fear or uncertainty. Emotions are contagious, so we have to be careful that we don’t get hooked in to their angst. We also need to remind ourselves that our frustration, worry, irritation or pity is guaranteed to light the touch paper.
One of the myths dispelled by brain science is that the teenage years start at 13 and miraculously end at 20. In fact, the adolescent brain starts its overhaul at around 10 and remains work in progress until the mid 20s. One of the main side effects of this neural refurbishment is poor cognitive function, trademark teenage behaviour and emotional meltdowns.
The end of the summer holidays can be a mixed blessing for parents, with back to term-time routines and handing the responsibility for childcare back to school. For those parents with school leavers, the buck now stops with you and that can feel scary.
School offers structure, nurture and safe boundaries, where children are cajoled, pressured, advised and steered forward. However, once those parameters drop away, many teenagers have the impression that they are ready to drive solo. Parents, on the other hand, are unlikely to feel that it is time to dispense with L-plates when their school leaver has never been trusted with a simple roundabout, let alone Hyde Park Corner or the Birmingham interchange.
A child’s motivation is extrinsically provided at school by deadlines, examinations, routines and goals. Take that structure away and replace it with the freedom to do-as-you-please (Gap Year or University life) and you can expect to see a rise in emotional hijacks and decision paralysis. So making simple plans, writing a To Do list, doing admin, making choices and feeling intrinsically motivated can be woefully lacking. An untidy bedroom is a clear indicator of what’s really going on behind the scenes in the mind of a child.
Parents can play a vital role in stoking levels of motivation and sparking some interest in life by the way they engage with their child at this time.
1. No lectures, most importantly ones which allude to how much time/money/effort has been invested in education/holidays/hobbies and now this…...
Instead, if you have things which you are burning to say, wait until you have had some time to think through the questions you would like answers to and formulate your conversation around those. Areas of the adolescent brain responsible for sparking ideas, being creative, making plans, weighing up choices, linking actions to consequences are work in progress and improve with exercise. Giving advice supplies ready-made answers, stokes levels of frustration, uncertainty and ruins the atmosphere at home.
2. No micromanaging. Resist the temptation to do anything which they are capable of doing themselves: no picking up belongings, no tidying bedrooms, no putting ironed clothes neatly away, no changing sheets, no rescuing wet towels, no bookings, no arranging plans, no researching. But do continue with family routines and rituals: meals, making family social arrangements, doing laundry (if it is presented to the washing machine). Becoming independent of your parents and doing all manner of personal tasks for yourself boosts levels of self-confidence and efficacy.
3. Firm boundaries. Try not to allow family life to become de-stabilised by one child. Most parents find inertia hard to tolerate, but setting a limit on it can help. “Its ok for you to take some time to make some decisions, but in….weeks time your allowance will stop. This should give you time to make some plans and find some work/direction….We are here to help….” Putting the ball kindly, firmly and fairly in their court has a chance of kick-starting independent thinking and getting them to make their plan. Once ideas start flowing, resist the temptation to brush them aside in place of your own. Try instead to use their ideas and further encourage them to refine them into a workable plan.
4. Acknowledge their strengths. Where there is passion, there is usually motivation and energy. Remind your child of the things they enjoy doing, are interested in or are good at. And rather than lament and focus on what they will lose if they are no longer…. playing music…doing sport…. painting… try and spark their interest and energy by helping them to see what could be gained and how they might benefit from using talents/skills/hobbies/interests whilst travelling/at university or working.
5. Lay out your stall. Be transparent and clear about your motives and your role as parent now they are growing up. Explain that you won’t be on their case 24/7, or doling out criticism, but on occasions you will need to give constructive feedback, point out hazards if they appear to be going unnoticed or indeed step in in case of emergencies.
As your child embarks on the often-hazardous journey to Adulthood and autonomy, throwing the car keys at them and leaving them to work it out for themselves would be a highly risky strategy. On the other hand constant back seat driving will cause road rage and a bumpy ride. So a balanced and diplomatic approach is required in order that parents are welcomed passengers and will be the first port of call when your child requires un-judgmental, wise counsel. Children of all ages need to know that they are loved and cherished, even when the wheels are off.