Advice: Supporting senior students and their parents through the pandemic

Article by Dr Judith Locke
27 April 2020

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of media commentary about the pressures on Year 12 (or Year 13 in NZ) students right now. That’s completely understandable – the final school year is already a pretty fraught year for many. And now, with the impact of COVID-19, students, parents and even teachers, are justifiably worried about the consequence on the year they’ll have and their final school year results.

By no means do I want to suggest that this isn’t a stressful time for senior students. They have every right to have a strong emotional reaction to all of the uncertainty, their changed living, different school schedule, unknown format for exams, impacted social life, reduced exercise chances, altered formal plans, and the uncertainty around how the final results are going to be formulated.

But the key point I want to make here to students is about the delineation you make between what is an understandable reaction and what is a helpful reaction. And truthfully, even though it is completely understandable that you might be freaking out, the fact is it is not helpful at all.

The brain and our coping methods are pretty sneaky operators. We are virtually programmed to look for constant danger in our lives. This started in our caveman days, when listening out for big bears and preparing our exit out of the cave was a smart move. But if you look out for possible dangers too often, you’ll get into a very unhelpful space where you are almost in a perpetual state of anxiety.

Worry is sometimes helpful, but only if it prompts you to do something useful, such as work out a plan to get away from the bear. But if worry just sits in your head as a terrible weight, then it is not beneficial at all. That’s because it creates a virtual crazed bear being near you all the time. The burden of that danger feeling so close, is likely to make you feel much worse, and, ironically, much less prepared for what might happen and less capable of doing what you might need to do.

Worse still, our worries often morph into faux facts. That’s because we don’t like the ambiguity of the idea that bad things might, or might not, happen. Because of our discomfort, we often tend to see bad things as being likely to happen, which feels like it is stopping the question bouncing around in our head. It’s why you often become convinced that someone doesn’t like you or are certain that you will do badly on an exam, even with a lack of real evidence. A sense of a definitive answer is always more comfortable for you – even if it is not actually true or helpful.

I suspect this is happening to senior students and their families now, where they’re starting to imagine terrible consequences of the current situation rather than waiting and seeing what happens. Some are predicting a dreadful impact on their wellbeing; some are already planning to repeat the year. That’s all understandable, but not helpful.

So, what do I recommend? I want you to think strategically now. You can spend all of your time freaking out, but you are better to do genuinely helpful things. This means putting your efforts towards working out what is controllable in your life, and what you can actually do given the situation you are in.

Things that are controllable are studying the work that you’ve been given by your teachers. Also, setting up a schedule that includes regular video or audio socialising with your friends, exercise, study breaks, good food, time with your family, leisure activities, fun, dog patting, dancing, screen free time, loud singing, baking, reading for enjoyment, video gaming and of course… enough sleep. A balance of these things is going to make you feel much better than worry ever will.

You can also focus much more on the feeling of trust rather than doubt – trusting that doing the work you are given by your teachers will be enough, and having enough trust that the educational leaders will put knowledgeable thought into responding to the new circumstances and setting up an approach that is fair for all.

Trust is also going to make you feel more optimistic about what will happen. Just because you don’t know the future, doesn’t mean it is going to be bad – unknown things aren’t necessarily terrible things. Trust that you’ll cope with whatever happens.

Sure, every now and then, you might worry too much. But if you are going to do this, then talk to someone who is sensible, can listen, help you feel understood, and isn’t likely to imagine even worse outcomes. You might even like to set up a ‘freak out chair’ where you can sit every now and then just to worry and dwell. But make sure it’s not too comfortable – you want to make a deliberate decision to get out of it and go back to the truly helpful activities. Making worry a time-limited activity, will make it more manageable. And if it is not manageable, despite your attempts, speak to your school counsellor or GP, to get some telehealth sessions with a psychologist to help you feel better.

Ideally, try not to think of the time in only negative ways. Learning how to cope with the pivoting and changes of the next few months or so, may make you more resourceful and capable of facing difficulty in the future. You may be better prepared for university and the workplace than previous students who had an ‘ideal Year 12 year’, if there’s such a thing.

The plan’s changed but plans often do. It’s not about what has happened to you, but how you respond that matters. You have to be fluid, or you’ll get stuck. Just keep moving forward … you’ll get there.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Mail on 26.4.20.

© Judith Locke

Dr Judith Locke is a Clinical Psychologist and child wellbeing specialist who presents sessions for parents and teachers at schools around Australasia. For more of Judith’s work read her weekly column in the Rendezview section of Newscorp newspapers, or her parenting book, The Bonsai Child: Why modern parenting limits children’s potential and practical strategies to turn it around.