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Helpful Discussions with your Teenager – Returning to College – The Mixed Bag of Feelings

By Rachel Melville-Thomas, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Student Support Services

This article offers some thoughts about helping our young people in this next step after lockdown – returning to College, and how to help them get through this unusual transition in a prepared and balanced way.

For international families, this isn’t happening just yet, as the remainder of the term doesn’t really offer enough time for these students to come back, and quarantine etc.

But I would like to offer a few ideas about preparing your child for re-entry into College life, with all that this entails, and this might be useful after the Easter break too, when everyone comes back for the summer term.

On the whole, you might be finding that your young person is quite excited about going back to school – in adolescence friends are your lifeline – how amazing to be actually seeing them!

But there are also some uncertainties about the move back, which they might not be talking about. We know that some of our children would really rather stay at home, and not get up so early in the morning!

This article is entitled: “The Mixed Bag” because although being at school is what everyone has missed for so long, it nevertheless carries apprehensions, uncertainties and perhaps even some anxieties – both for the young people, and the adults too! It is a partnership between parents and school staff to help them navigate this wobbly line of mixed feelings, back to the safer ground of normal school life.

This week, while teachers and tutors are still working through Teams, the help starts at home with parents and carers.

I am going to suggest a few places in our teenagers’ lives where worries can be lurking, and how to find out more so we can help to figure these worries out.

The spotlight here is on these questions:

  1. What they think about the return – their OPINION
  2. What they are thinking about social situations – their FRIENDS
  3. What they are thinking about increased work demands – their BRAIN
  4. How much they have felt trapped, constrained, bored, pent-up – their ENERGY
  5. How they adjust to new messages about safety – COVID worries.

 

1. Opinion check

It might sound like an unnecessary question, but it’s a good idea to check in with them and find out what they really think.

Try open questions like “what do you think about heading back next Sunday?” rather than “it’ll be great to see everyone again won’t it?” which is only looking at the positive side.

Make it easy for them to give you both sides of the situation – the pluses and minuses.

(No interruptions, no correcting their viewpoint and, at this point we don’t need to share our own adult relief or our worries.)

They, like all of us, want to be back in “Normal Life” again, but for a while it is not going to be very normal. And it is really ok to say that it’s a bit weird.

It is a transition period when we need to allow time to adjust.

 

Tips on starting the conversation:

“So it’s finally happening!..How are you feeling about College?”

“What’s the best thing about going back? What’s the worst?”

“What are other people (friends) saying about coming back to school?”

“I know you aren’t thrilled about starting again….Can you help me to understand a bit more   about that.?”

“What’s your score for going back to College on a scale of 1-10 ?”

 

2. Friend check

Possibly the best reason for getting back to College is seeing friends again in person. It is worth talking to your young person about how it will be when they return, as some of the boundaries will have shifted. For example, they may find that they now have a slightly altered friendship pattern – involving other Houses, different year groups or simply less contact with friends. All of this might seem strange when they get back to school, so it’s worth alerting them to how things might be different. If your child is going to remain at home, talk to them about their concerns of feeling left out.

Encourage them to talk to friends who will be easy to stay in touch with, and make sure they can keep connected to people they like, with whom they won’t naturally share a timetable, or a House location.

Tips for talking about friendship:

  • Be aware friendship connections may be different
  • Be open to new people
  • How do you feel about your Year group bubble/your dorm?
  • Be kind
  • Support each other – especially those students still at home
  • Allow time to adjust
  • Remember it’s just 3 weeks.

 

3. Brain check

Even though your young person has been having online lessons – the mixed bag of all of this means that sometimes they have been engaged and learning, and sometimes they probably haven’t. They may well be struggling with the after effects of lockdown learning like concentration difficulties, or feeling a bit cloudy in their memory for subject content.

You might have noticed changes in your child’s ability to recall things or make decisions.

This isn’t a time to criticise their study focus, or complain about too much gaming. Psychology studies show that it is part of this abnormal, isolated existence that makes human brains lose their sharpness. The brain is operating at a more rudimentary level of cognitive ability. (Do you remember not being sure about what day of the week it was in the first lockdown?)

So we must ALLOW TIME TO ADJUST

Despite the brilliant job that staff have done in online teaching, it’s likely that there are quite a few who have worries about keeping up once back in class. And often it’s the most able students who worry the most and can become very anxious indeed.

Tips on talking about school work and the brain:

  • Ask your young person how they feel right now about the full timetable, school work, prep, tests and exams
  • Tell them that there will be a period of adjustment – that staff will support them in this
  • Tell them that everyone (even adults) might find it hard at first to catch up, but that is expected
  • Remind them of times when they have done well – reassure them that their brain is amazing, and will recharge itself over these coming months.

 

4. Energy check – being stuck and bursting out

Another area we might want to check is how desperate is your young person to get back, how fed up or frustrated are they? How irritable or argumentative are they?

All of these can be signs that they are the equivalent of a bottle of Coca Cola – shaken up and down, but with the cap still on. The process of heading back to real friends, real students and the real boarding environment might just be the thing that flips the lid – and could result in some risky behaviour, excitable rule breaking or unwise words spoken.

You might be thinking “ah, but my child is so apathetic and can barely get out of bed …”

But adolescents can have really roller coaster feelings driven by the part of the brain that works as the ‘Accelerator’ of feelings both passionate and aggressive (the amygdala). During adolescence, the part of the brain acting as sensible ‘Brakes’ (the frontal cortex) is still developing, and so rational and balanced behaviour is not always the result.

This Accelerator part of the brain works normally in the teenage years to push them onward and forward, to grow and try and take risks. So, as they return to College, it’s worth checking how they feel about things, make sure they have somewhere to let off steam – exercise, shouting to friends in gaming, playing music turned up loud, laughing with friends, writing in a journal, doing your art. We want to channel that pent-up locked down energy – before it breaks out somewhere unhelpful. And that could be anything from breaking House rules to starting rumours about a friend who seems to have left you.

Here again – it’s good to say..”It’s been really tough, there’s so much you have not been able to do, and so much you will do…”

The message to them is:

  • Be careful of energy overspill
  • Use sport, dance, art and exercise
  • Think before you take a risk
  • Be kind.

5. Covid check

Lastly some of our students might well be simply anxious about being around others when they have been told not to for so long. Can I hug my friend? Is it safe to be in class?

There’s a real conflicting message – another mixed bag of feelings – ‘Hey it doesn’t matter, because I want to be with everyone’, and ‘oh, what exactly is the risk of Covid to me and my family when I go back home?’

There are lots of good practical measures that College has taken, like the frequent testing that will be carried out and the social distancing. But your child and perhaps, you too, are wondering if all of this is a good idea, so try to find out facts that make you feel as positive as possible.

On balance, they need to know that we are on the right track now. College staff and HsMs will be guiding them to know what to do, and how to keep as safe as possible.

Once again, I want to remind you that Student Support Service is here to answer any of your questions about supporting teenagers back into school with the good steady mental health they need to manage it all. Having fun, waking up their brains again, being able to think through worries, staying in touch with you, their parents.

If there are any questions, whether big or small, about this process – do get in touch via