June 28, 2023
By Dr Kathy Weston
The arrival of summer often entails saying goodbye to our children multiple times as they venture far afield on school trips, expeditions, residentials or holidays with friends. As Shakespeare wrote for Juliet, “parting is such sweet sorrow” and, even for the most fatigued of parents, the tug of attachment is often acutely felt at the point of departure.
Part of the reason why we might struggle to say goodbye to offspring departing on an adventure is that it involves us having to relinquish control. It’s not an easy psychological adjustment to rapidly give up daily responsibility for them. Absence means we might think about them continuously and nervously await updates (or it might just be me!).
Sometimes the anticipatory anxiety of them not being with us can inhibit us from allowing them to fully participate in all that life has to offer. We might prevent them doing something sociable, educational or an activity that could enable them to grow physically and psychologically. I am currently in a position of weighing up sending my eldest on a range of summer activities that will involve solo flights and stays in unknown buildings in unknown cities with unknown staff. As I contemplate various booking forms, I have realised that the only real barrier is parental anxiety and it is within my control to reduce that. To do so, I reflected on the times I was allowed to be away from home as a teen.
When I was thirteen, I attended a residential summer camp two hours from home for the month of August. At fifteen, I lived with a French family on a language exchange for two weeks and spent several weeks in Florence during the summer, living in an apartment with an Italian family. At sixteen, I travelled the length and breadth of Italy with my best friend, who was the same age, staying free of charge in convents and orphanages run by religious institutions! These experiences were some of the standout experiences of my childhood. I still remember being amazed to meet children from other countries at the summer camp in Ireland. Who knew that people from different countries ate different things for breakfast? Or that people’s fashion sense could differ so much? I remember on the French exchange learning how different families live and interact. Staying in Florence, I became friends with the family’s grandpa who taught me how to choose a nice melon at the market each day and introduced me to zucchini! On my Italian adventure, I became ‘streetwise’ in Rome; learning how to read people, pick up on social cues, navigate risk, deal with getting lost and budget.
Some of the richest learning was the toughest; coping with bouts of illness, loneliness, home-sickness, fall-outs with friends or the children on the exchange, and having to work it out to continue the trip. As I weigh up permitting my own teen to experience a long residential trip this summer in a large city, a camping holiday with friends and a solitary plane journey, I recall the exhilaration of being trusted to fly solo. Periods away from home were unquestionably character-building experiences and I am filled with retrospective admiration for my parents, who had the foresight to see the value in them. I look back and remember their confidence in me and their belief that ‘travel was the best education’. Back then, they weren’t able to email me, follow me on Snapchat or FaceTime me. Instead, they had to trust the process, trust in me, hope for the best and await my return.
Another incentive for sending my teen on some solo missions this summer was a conversation I had with a mental health nurse in a leading university last weekend. We met up for a coffee and I listened to her experiences of supporting students who have recently transitioned to university. She supports students college-wide, so possesses a birds-eye view of the issues affecting young people.
Some of the problems will come as no surprise to any of us; loneliness, exam stress, coping with workload, ‘imposter syndrome’, difficulties making friends, time management and challenges with ‘practical stuff’, such as making healthcare appointments. She felt that many students just had little experience of being alone, independent or self-sufficient. This view chimed with an interview that I did back in 2021 with Professor Siobhan O’Neill, a mental health guru, who told me that ‘overprotective parenting’ could often lead to worse mental health in early adulthood. Children need to be enabled to ‘give stuff a go’ and experience challenges and age-appropriate risk as a means of building confidence in their own abilities to cope. As I write this, my own teen is somewhere in the Peak District on a boiling hot day navigating his way around the hills with an Ordnance Survey app. Who knows what is happening or how he is doing? All I know is, life is for living. Children grow up and they ultimately need to learn to fend for themselves.
In our parenting, it may feel entirely intuitive and highly tempting to snow plough ahead and make sure they encounter as little trouble as possible, but is this ideal? Take the example of children being allocated into classes or new forms next year. Many parents worry about their child not being with their friends and can even feel angry that the close bond their child developed with classmates will be challenged or potentially ‘dismantled’ by a fresh separation. I completely understand this reaction and have felt the same tug of dread when my own children haven’t been put in the ‘form’ they wanted or got to sit beside their favourite person on the bus. But, sometimes, getting what one needs, rather than what one wants, is optimal.
Not being with those we love during the day is something that we all have to experience throughout our lives and developing skills to manage such micro separations is important. I am reminded of a video clip that I saw recently of Elmo saying goodbye to dad at the school gate. It’s cute because it acknowledges the sweet sorrow we all feel with goodbyes, but also reminds us that separation is temporary and that we can stay connected in other ways during that time. Elmo’s dad strikes just the right tone, as suggested by anxiety researchers all over the world; he is cool, calm and constructive. He doesn’t give Elmo’s worries too much oxygen by showing stress at the separation himself. He doesn’t get tearful or allow Elmo to cling to him. He doesn’t agree that he needs to come into the building and stay until Elmo feels better. He reminds Elmo that school is fun and of all the things he is going to do during the day before they see each other again. He has confidence in Elmo’s ability to cope.
In my view, schools are right to mix it up a bit and encourage children to be in classes or forms with children that they aren’t close to. Whilst it can feel hard for us as parents, it is arguably better for our children in the long term. When they reach college or university or walk into a new work environment for the first time, they will start from scratch and will need to heavily rely on their ability to cultivate social support, develop bonds and friendships. This takes practice and arguably the earlier we start on these social skills, the better!
So, if your child suddenly realises they won’t be with their bestie next year, one approach is to lean into the sadness and fire off emails protesting the decision. Another approach (perhaps optimal), is to ask them how they feel about that. Can they think of any benefits to being with new pupils? How might they sustain connections with good friends at school (during playtimes for example or even beyond the school gate)? What can they control?
Like Elmo’s dad, we can model a calm, cool constructive attitude, with our eye on the prize; their future resilience to change. We can help them reframe this experience as a chance to learn more about other people in their year group and to grow their existing friendship group. Last year, they learned that they can make friends and how they have an opportunity to practise these skills again.
Learning who our children’s teachers will be next academic year can cause minor emotional upset too! Perhaps we don’t know them, have heard they are super strict or worry they won’t get on with our children. How we talk about new teachers matters very much and what children overhear on the phone or in the playground can play a role in how they might adapt to new arrangements. I always suggest presenting a united front of ‘teacher-parent’. Modelling respect for children’s teachers comes first. Being positive about change is key and we need to watch our language. I have often heard parents warning children about their next teacher in ways that might exacerbate anxiety: “Ooh, I have heard they are really strict. You will need to be on your best behaviour!” or, “I’ve heard they give lots of homework, so you will need to work harder next year”. Let’s give children and teachers a chance; to get to know one another and to develop their own views of one another.
A lot of science, thought and consideration is given by teachers to the allocation of classes (much of which is invisible to us as parents) and we have no control over that, just as we will have little control over who our children make friends with or interact with over the course of their lives.
Part of what incentivises me to ‘let go’ this summer and permit my teens to try new things is the fact that both my children were unable to do certain things during the pandemic. Remember back when birthday parties, holidays, school trips and sport were all cancelled and we weren’t allowed to be within two metres of one another?
So how did the pandemic affect children and young people? Are we in a position to work out the ‘cost’ of lockdown psychologically? In 2021, our Head of Research at Tooled Up, Dr Hope Christie and colleagues, published work in collaboration with the Department for Education, which suggested that children and young people, as well as their parents, were severely affected by the pandemic. These extensive reports found that the pandemic not only impacted children’s learning and attainment, but also severely affected their mental health and wellbeing, nutrition, physical health and, for those children living in dangerous domestic situations, it increased their exposure to risk. It is estimated that one in six children in England aged five – 16 now have a probable mental health disorder, with the pandemic and lockdown cited as exacerbating factors.
Parents and carers also were also negatively affected by the pandemic, with evidence suggesting very similar impacts to their children. Further, evidence suggested that those caring for a child with special educational needs and/or neurodevelopmental disorders (SEN/ND) experienced higher levels of psychological distress compared to parents of neurotypical children. Evidence from roundtable discussions with parents of SEN/ND children suggested that this may have been caused by a reduction in respite services or by parents still being unable to send their children to school over health concerns. Professor Cathy Creswell, an expert in child anxiety and a professor of development clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, states that, even years on from the pandemic, we’ll still be learning about its impact.
Just yesterday, on a walk with a friend, her toddler instinctively approached an object attached to the wall and put her hand under it, waiting for it to dispense hand sanitiser. In these ‘post-pandemic’ years, families, children and young people have much unlearning and learning to do, recalibration is still taking place and, if anything, we need to find a way to regain our confidence in taking part and participating in all that life has to offer. As summer approaches, nature lures us into its magnificence (free for all to enjoy) and invites us to be in it in ways that can restore our minds, bodies and confidence in ourselves.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
At Tooled Up, we are well aware that whilst change is exciting, it can also be daunting. That’s why we have a whole section in the library dedicated to transitions at various stages of life. When anticipating change, it is helpful to focus on what we can control in any given situation (this activity can help) and reflect on how change has made us feel in the past.
To help, we’ve very recently published some new activities for primary-aged children about coping with upcoming changes; one for very young children changing school year, one for children in the upper years of primary school and a third for children about to move up to Year 7. We’ve also recently added new webinars which focus on children moving on to prep/primary, senior/secondary or boarding school. The library also contains some lovely strategies to help both younger children and people of all ages make friends in new environments.
If your teen is preparing for a solo trip away this summer, our packing list might nudge them to remember all the necessaries. We’ve also got a specific list for festival packing (and a list of family friendly festivals for anyone interested).
On a different note, I’d like to remind you all about our live, lunchtime panel discussion on ADHD. We’ve invited three experts to consider all of your ADHD-related questions on 13th July at 12pm. Perhaps you would like to learn more about key issues surrounding ADHD? What does the diagnosis pathway look like for a child and their parents? How can teachers best support children with ADHD? Is medication a safe option for some students? Are social media apps such as TikTok having an impact on diagnosis rates? Find out the answers to these and more by booking your place now.
Enjoy your week!