Having hope and letting go: Parenting a nearly-teen
After several sleepless nights, we finally found out that our daughter has a good high school to go to in September. The sleeplessness was completely on my part – my daughter has been taking this in her stride, maybe with a small part of denial. Today, as many other families start to think about the next steps for their nearly-teens, I thought I would offer some reflections and advice.
As parents, we often base our hopes and fears for our children on our own experiences of being their age. If you had a happy childhood, then wanting to replicate those same experiences for your own children becomes your task. If you had an unhappy one, then maybe you spend your time trying to fix those memories for yourself through your child. And with those memories that you have stored in your adult mind, you pass on feelings and expectations to your child. So, if you loved your family holidays in France and you take your children, they will perhaps see and sense you are being relaxed and feel that way too. Scared of spiders? There is a good chance your little ones will be too – especially when they see you running off down the street at the sight of eight legs (Only me?!). What I am saying is that our memories affect how we treat, relate and expect of our children and at key moments in life, such as the transition to high school, these feelings go into overdrive.
I grew up in quite a small place and we didn’t have a choice of high school. There was the faith school or the non-faith school. I went to the faith school with all of my primary classmates. I didn’t particularly enjoy being in high school or, in fact, being a teenager. I was shy and self-conscious. I got picked on for a while and had to make a whole new set of friends. I survived high school. It wasn’t until I reached University that I finally got to know who I was and where I wanted to be.. Anyway, I have skipped ahead now. My experience of high school had coloured the picture that I had imagined for my daughter in high school. I was so worried that she would have my experience of school that I couldn’t see her feelings and experiences. My sleepless nights had been about not wanting my daughter to go through what I did; of wanting to protect her so fiercely. However, life is not like that, and we can’t stop our children from growing up. Sure, they would miss a lot of bad things like heartbreak and broken friendships and responsibilities - but think of the other things they would miss too! Freedom, love, best friends, the world, learning things that blow your mind, finding a passion and something to believe in.
And a further thought: our children are not us. They have different desires, experiences and motivations. They have us. We are modern parents who spend time thinking about how we parent, providing ways to support the emotional wellbeing of our children, thoughtful and careful parents who have probably been through and seen through a lot (Disclaimer: I am not saying our parents were not like this, but we have to admit that life has changed). Schools are more aware too. There is a much greater emphasis on pastoral care in 2022. Many schools have quiet places for time out, allocated staff that will be available to help children and mental health programmes for all pupils and staff.
Recently, I took my daughter to her netball practice session. She has never really shown an interest in sports (she is artist through and through) but for some reason, she was desperate to go to this netball group. When we arrived, she was greeted happily by some friends in her class. They had been attending the group for a while, and as the session moved along, my daughter was separated from them into a beginner’s group. I felt my heart stop for a beat. What would she do now, without her friends? She is all alone! Why have they done this to her on her first session? I was panicking for her. The other girls in her group were playing a game and my daughter stood on the outside watching. I felt my eyes fill up and wanted to go and hug her. Then the most amazing thing happened. She asked the girls if she could play and simply joined in. No tears, no shyness, just a little of bit of time and then a step forward. Of course, my daughter has some of me inside of her, but she is also a lot of her. I keep thinking about this event today, as she moves forward to a more open world. I can watch her and protect her when she comes to me, and I know that she has everything she needs inside of her. She will be whoever she wants to be at a time that is right for her. Like a beautiful flower, I can water her and give her the right soil, but she will choose when she is ready to bloom.
Here is some practical advice for those of you managing this step. Perhaps you didn’t get the school you wanted or maybe your child is overly worried. Hopefully, these pointers will help you navigate to where you want to be together.
· Model Coping Techniques
“We are what we repeatedly do” so you if can show your child how you manage your feelings and worries, then will learn from you. This doesn’t mean pushing all the negative stuff down. It means openly acknowledging your feelings and telling your child how you are going to manage them. For example, when I was talking to my daughter about high school, I admitted that I was worried and excited for her. She was able to say that too and we talked about how we work together to make it easier. I also said that I was going to the gym to get rid of some of my energy and asked her what she would like to do to feel better (she chose watching TV!).
· Hope – the most powerful tool we have
By acknowledging that your child is different to you, we can light the torch of hope for the future. Hope is a wonderful thing and when we have it, it connects us to ourselves, to others, and increases our sense of emotional wellbeing. Try and find the positives each day – small things like your child getting up in time and getting dressed independently, acknowledging if your child comes home from school smiling or shares something positive, or even enjoying a different kind of conversation with your more mature child. Feeling hopeful for your child will help them to feel positive and you will both feel stronger together.
Even if it feels like the hardest thing in the world to ask for something or say something, do it anyway. If you can say difficult things out loud, then your child will feel permission to do the same and overwhelming feelings can be managed in a better way. If you are worried about school or something that has happened, speak to the school. Asking for help is another good thing to model for your child as they will feel more comfortable in doing the same. Talk to other parents about their experiences. There are plenty of social media groups and hashtags around for you to not feel isolated and to create a network of friends for support. And when words fail, simply being with your child can be enough. Listen to some music together, go for a drive in the car, do a craft, play some football… whatever your child is interested in, go and be with them. Your presence can be enough to help your child feel loved.
· If you didn’t get the right school or things don’t go well…
Communicate again. Ask for help from friends, other parents, other schools, professionals. You can change schools if things are too difficult for your child once they are there. You also have a right to appeal if you didn’t get the place you wanted. There is plenty of advice on the internet about what to do and again, social media forums can be a brilliant source of advice for worried parents. But, if things still don’t go to plan with your placement, you can return to modelling how you cope, having some hope and finding something positive and communicating in the best way you can.