September is often a time of change and upheaval.
For young people of all ages it can mean new schools, teachers, or friendship groups, or setting off to university or a new job. Even if it is ‘only’ joining a new team, or activity club, it can be unsettling.
Change is stressful whatever our age, it’s part of being human (change triggers our anxiety response), so anything we can do to help our teens and young adults through a potentially tricky time can be useful.
If lots of things are changing, your teen’s natural anxiety may be multiplied many times. If possible you could try reframing the anxiety as ‘excitement’ (“Are you feeling excited about your new school/ leaving home?”) which may feel more positive than asking if they are anxious/ worried about it, whilst acknowledging to them that anxiety is a normal human emotion.
If they say they are worried or stressed, it can be tempting to brush it off (“you’ll be fine”) as we reassure them. However it may be more helpful to say something like “I know it can feel worrying, but that’s ok, lots of people feel like that when things change. It will be ok, and we are right here to help if you need us”.
It is really common for parents and carers to worry about how to manage change, and how much to get involved in their teen’s life, so here are my top 3 suggestions for surviving the autumnal turmoil.
Be a safe harbour.
Wherever your young person is setting off to, and whatever challenges they encounter on their way, they need to know that they can always come home and feel safe.
Being a parent of teens can be particularly emotionally demanding, as they naturally start to focus more on their peers and less on you, and you may feel like they are rejecting you (this is understandable, but they are biologically programmed to leave their parents and connect with their peers more) but they will still need you, especially if they are upset or struggling.
They need to know that they are always welcome at home, that they will be heard (even if you don’t agree with what they are saying), and they will be loved no matter what.
They need to be able to rely on the solidity and security of their ‘family basecamp’.
Let them know that you are always there for them.
Don’t fix things, navigate alongside instead.
When things are difficult for our children it is so tempting to want to fix it for them, to step in and sort it out.
An argument between friends, a poor academic grade, even an accusation of bad behaviour, can feel upsetting for all concerned, and it is natural to want to have it sorted out as quickly as possible.
However, it is vital that your young person learns to deal with things going wrong (it’s a crucial life skill) and so, depending on their age, it is more helpful in the long term to be alongside them, navigating the situation, advising but not telling them what to do when things go awry.
Maybe think of it as ‘riding the waves’ of life and let them know that you are right there on the wave next to them. (I’m using a lot of nautical metaphors this time, aren’t I? Too much time spent by the British seaside this summer perhaps!?)
Reassure them, be there for them, but don’t fix it for them.
Mistakes will be made, help them to learn from them.
It is normal that not everything will go according to plan when change happens. Mistakes are made, poor judgment is not unusual, and errors of planning can all contribute to things going wrong.
As young people become more independent, they need to make more of their own decisions, and living with the consequences of those decisions can be testing sometimes. Especially if (as is the case till their mid 20s) their brain is still developing, and they haven’t yet developed the bit (the prefrontal cortex) that controls impulsive and risk-taking behaviour.
They will therefore be more prone to taking a gamble- and not yet fully able to overcome the drive to do so with the careful and measured response that might be needed.
They may think...
'Should I meet up with mates or study at home?'
'Try a new recreational substance with a group of peers?'
'Look up stuff online that probably won’t work out so well?'
'Change a plan at the last minute to head somewhere different with friends, and forget to let you know?'
These are all common teen behaviours, and sometimes things don’t end well.
The key here is to first establish their current and future safety, then take a breath before having a discussion (in a calm setting) about what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what they might like to do differently next time. You could try one of my 'sideways conversations' here...
Take time to reflect on why this matters (not just ‘because I say so’) and have a plan for how they might react and respond better next time.
The messing up might happen a few times, but hopefully they will learn each time to minimise risk and maximise a good outcome.
Making mistakes is a learning experience!
This autumn is going to be a time of change and adaptation for many of us, and for our teens it can sometimes feel overwhelming. We can help by; checking in with them, reassuring them, reflecting with them when things go wrong, and reminding them that we are always here for them no matter what.
You will be their safe harbour.