Posted by Erin O’Rourke on August 21, 2020
Written by Erin O’Rourke, RP (Qualifying), Teacher
It’s entirely normal that back-to-school time comes with mixed emotions and a degree of ambiguity for teens and their families. Disappointment sets in that summer is nearly over, late nights and lazy sleep-ins draw to a close, and the reality of alarm clocks, pressing assignments, and social pressures sets in.
With each of these, comes the excitement and anticipation of a new school year – a fresh start! Teens look forward to the possibilities around meeting new people and reunions with friends missed over summer. They begin to wonder, who will be in my classes? Will my friends have the same spare or lunch? Which teachers will I have? What clubs will I join this year?
We know that the 2020-21 school year is not going to be the ‘normal’ we are used to. The onset of COVID-19 has left us all on our toes as we try to navigate through a global-pandemic world. We are still awaiting clarity on what the school year will actually look like, and this means our teens and families are facing some really big unknowns as September approaches.
By the way, don’t miss our Self Motivated Learning, Setting Teens up for Success in the ‘New Normal’ Facebook Live Event on August 10th.
Through both counselling and teaching, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to my teens and their families about some of the challenges they’ve been dealing with. While this is not an all-inclusive list, these examples give us a sense of what we’ve been through, and hopefully validate some of the experiences felt in your own home.
First and perhaps foremost for teens was the social-isolation that resulted from months of school being shut down. Adolescence is a time in development where kids start stretching into their own being – pulling away from family, carving out social niches, and beginning to engage in romantic relationships. In a matter of days, a lot of that was taken away. Over the coming months, teens faced the reality of friendships drifting, relationships ending, and their growing independence dissolving. This doesn’t even speak to the loss of end-of-year celebrations, grad-nights, and excitement about summer jobs, summer camps, and summer travels.
In addition to this, our kids were expected to embrace a model of learning entirely new to them – without a whole lot of warning or instruction around how to do this. Families did their best to manage their own workloads in this new COVID-19 world, while trying to ensure kids followed some semblance of a routine and completed the school work that was required of them. For a lot of teens, graduation from high-school felt like it was on the line and entrance to post-secondary was equally at stake.
Underlying it all were the fears and confusion around this new virus. Our teens and families watched as the world tried to figure out how to manage the outbreak and ‘flatten the curve’. Some were directly affected as friends, family members, or teachers became ill, lost their jobs, or lost their lives to the virus. All of a sudden, we were asking our kids to wear masks, carry hand sanitizer, wash their hands at every opportunity, and not to go within 6 feet of someone who isn’t in their ‘bubble’.
As shut-down restrictions began to lift this summer, many teens overjoyed at the prospect of being able to socialize again, but some have noted that new pressures exist. Among their peer groups, differences abound in the sense of urgency around public health guidelines. While many teens are working hard to follow the precautionary measures around distancing, mask-wearing, and sticking to a bubble, some are struggling with balancing social pressures when their friends are not.
All of this can feel overwhelming to address, and parents often feel the need to ‘fix’ things for their teens. It’s important to remember that one of the most meaningful and helpful things we can do is hold space for authentic communication.
Just like learning any other part of language, our kids need to be taught how to identify and describe their emotional experiences. Before they have words to tell you about their feelings, kids experience them as physical sensations or overly-simplistic thoughts about what’s happening around them. Emotional stress, for example, might present through stomach-aches, tears, or unsettled sleeps. When something feels good, kids bounce, laugh, and smile, thinking “this is fun!” As life becomes more complex, it becomes increasingly difficult for kids to figure out what’s happening for them emotionally – but you can help!
As we look to the challenging school-year ahead, take some time to acknowledge the mixed feelings that might be coming up for your teen – and for you! While teens may be excited about seeing friends again, it’s expected that they have worries about staying healthy and being able to manage the complexities of a very different-looking school format. Like many of us adults, they may be fearful of another shutdown and all the unknowns that come with it – reiterate to your teen that we are in this together and all of our worries are a normal response to a very abnormal situation.
This is one of my favourite things to invite families to do with their kids – there are so many creative possibilities in creating this system! Some choose to create a colour scale, attaching different emotional meanings to the colours, while others might use emojis, number sequences, weather analogies, movie characters – the list is endless! Through conversations with my students and clients, I know that even if the system is set up, they are sometimes hesitant to approach adults for the actual check-in. Take the lead on this as the adult – open up the space for authentic conversation, and more often than not your teen will walk into it.
If there’s anything we’ve learned through all of this, it’s that connection to others is critical to our mental wellness. Although those spring break trips and faraway summer vacations couldn’t happen this year, my teens often tell me about the fun they’ve had going for take-out with a parent, learning to cook a meal with another parent, going for walks as a family, or watching a new series together. Sure, they may not want to do it all the time, but when they need you – the gift of your time can make a big difference.
We know that an online format will likely be a part of this school year at some point, and thankfully we now have a little more experience with it. In preparation for this, there are lots of ways that you can help set your teen up for success. Each of these tips will help your child while in-school learning is in session as well!
One of the first things that can go when teens are out of routine is their sleep schedule. With no early-morning alarm clocks and school bells ringing, one more netflix episode (and one more after that…) is far too easy a routine to fall into. It’s important to establish regular bedtimes and wake-up times during the school week, allowing for later nights and longer sleep-ins on the weekend as reward. Encourage your teen to keep the technology out of arm’s reach in their room at night, or better yet – out of the room altogether.
Consider for a moment that for their whole school lives, our kids have been held to a routine. Wake up, go to school, head to first class, second class, lunch break somewhere in between, and off to a couple more classes after that. With the sudden onset of daily online learning for students of all ages, that routine was largely thrown out the window. Start them off on the right foot this year by setting up a schedule that includes age-appropriate intervals for work periods, movement breaks, snack breaks, and adult check-ins. Include some type of preferred activity at the end of each school day to keep them motivated!
We’ve all seen it, we’ve all done it – sprawled ourselves out on the couch, bed, or floor with a computer or other device precariously positioned so we can do our work, all while our favourite show streams in the background. Sound familiar? As a teacher, I’ve also been blessed with the middle-of-the-night emails from students still on their phones trying to secretly finish an assignment in their rooms while parents think they are sleeping. Before the year begins, partner up with your child to personalize a learning space for them that is inviting, distraction-free, and relatively close to you for check-ins. Have some fun with this!
Parents often stress that helping their kids with their homework means having to understand the content. If you’ve ever thought ‘what is even going on here?’ when you’ve looked at their homework, don’t worry. Consider that you’re actually doing a whole lot for them in just modeling the soft skills of reaching out for help, accepting feedback, persevering through frustration, and celebrating the wins. You got this, parents!
As a teacher myself, I’ve made the mistake of assuming that my students are simply not engaging in the learning when they’re not showing up to ‘class’. When I’ve reached out to families, parent and student responses immediately taught me otherwise. I quickly realized that my students were going through much more than I’d thought. If school pressures are mounting on your child, they might mistakenly attribute it to their own lack of skills or effort. As a result, they may hesitate to tell you or their teacher that they are struggling and the problem gets bigger. Your child’s teacher can provide some clarity around assignments and specific strategies to get them back on track.
Whereas parents often look toward the start of the school year as a time of respite, we are now faced with uncertainty, apprehension, and very different worries for our kids. Remember that it’s okay to not have all the answers – none of us do right now. Hold that space for authentic conversations with your teen and do your best to check in with them regularly. Perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to take time to acknowledge, consider, and take care of your own emotional experience. You will be much more equipped to help your teen as a result, and they will thank you for it (eventually…)!
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