This isn’t another blogpost on University preparation about how to get student finance or prepare an IKEA shopping list, it is about how we can prepare our children holistically for the transition from school to studying away from home, family and friends, preparing them mentally and emotionally which can result in reducing the risks to their wellbeing through stress, anxiety and coping on their own whilst at University or College.
This transition comes at a crucial time, when the teenage brain is still developing, self-esteem and identity are still forming, and independent living skills together with self care strategies are probably not yet embedded.
The Teenage Brain:
Managing time, planning and organisation skills are not yet fully developed, as the brain is not fully integrated, yet University life demands those L’s…logic, lateral thinking and linguistic prowess.
Managing Risk: Mmmm….don’t want to be a party pooper on Freshers Week, but how many 18 year old’s are fully in control of their alcohol consumption and risks to personal safety that accompany it?
Managing Sleep: How many 18 year old’s are fully committed to getting 8 hours sleep? or have developed self care strategies?
Why I’ve written this post
According to The Higher Education Statistics agency, the numbers of students developing Mental Health problems whilst at University has increased five-fold. That figure is only the figure gained from those students accessing help, so I suspect the figure is more. There is a lot of variation between various reports, but according to research by the BBC:
- In 2006 3K students asked for help, in 2015 the figure was 15K.
- 1,180 students abandoned their studies in the year 2014-15.
- Suicide rates of students have nearly doubled between 2007 and 2016.
- There were 10 deaths at Bristol University in the last 18 months, and closer to home, my daughter has reported sad statistics during her time at London College of Fashion, including 3 on the Women’s Wear course.
So within the context of these statistics, why have the figures increased? And why is there a significant gender difference?
In my opinion, a combination of social , political, economic and neurological factors have contributed to the melting pot that causes a decline in Student Mental Health:
- Lack of left hand brain skills: Some Students can find organisation difficult with the amount of freedom at Uni. The amount of un-supervised learning can be challenging which leads to stress and difficulties in motivation.
- A lot of high achieving pupils are used to being a “Big Fish in a small pond” : Student Ruth Day is quoted in an article for The Guardian about suicides at Brisol: “When you get to a Russell Group university, you are used to being top of your class. At school I was used to getting 90% for my work. At university 60% is brilliant. That disparity was something I really struggled with. At school, you are used to being a big fish. Here you are just one face in a sea of faces and it feels very isolating.” (The Guardian 26/05/2018)
- Student Debt: Pressure to achieve top marks to validate the amount of debt
- Financial worries as a result of poor budgeting skills, keeping up with Bills and expenses of a Social life
- Homesickness and a loss of belonging
- Isolation, especially if the student is an introvert personality
- Lack of independent living skills and taking responsibility for their own life . For those who haven’t experienced making mistakes on their own or juggling independent living with working (a part time job) and studying can become overwhelmed
- Poor emotional resilience results in an inability to bounce back from challenges
- Poor relationship skills due to being an introverted personality as oppose to an extrovert personality, leading to a loss of connection through difficulties in making new friendships.
What can we as Peoplemakers and Parents do to prepare our children for University holistically?
One of the key parts of understanding how the teenage brain works, is that during adolescence their brain’s are re-wiring to biologically prepare themselves for independence. As part of this process teenagers may start communicating less with you, listening less and wanting to be with you less. But many parents assume that this means they don’t need us. Whereas, in reality, they do still need us, but they need us differently. it is crucial to keep communication and connection strong, even when it looks like your teenager is distancing themselves from you. “Cutting them from our apron strings” should not include a severance to deep loving connection.
There is so much research and evidence being published now, that cites a loss of connection as the cause of Depression, rather than exclusively , a lack of seratonin, which explains why going to Uni is such a crucial time for young people when they are at their most vulnerable in losing connection, being away from home, and their established support network. Currently my favourite book on this is Johann Hari’s Lost Connections https://thelostconnections.com/
Use the Summer break after the A levels, to encourage them with self care strategies, looking at developing an exercise routine if they’re not sporty and start to build independent living skills if they are not already in place by enabling them to experiment with cooking meals, helping with the family food shopping and doing their own laundry, so they have an understanding of how much time this takes.
Moderating our parenting style during the secondary school years to promote Growth Mindset, which includes praising for effort, and personal qualities, rather than praise exclusively for achievements, grades and outcomes goes such a long way in preparation for uni and developing a positive self identity which gives a strong foundation for managing the reality of meeting other University students with different cognitive abilities. This helps with the “I am now a small fish in a bigger pond” scenario. Growth Mindset helps build resilience in managing setbacks and challenges, of which there will probably be a fair few, it equips children with the knowledge that they can manage when things get tough, whether that’s when the level of work cranks up, or when they experience relationship difficulties.
Role modelling how we manage stress is also very influential. Having conversations about what their stress management strategies might be, and how they can embed those, but more importantly do they know what their stress triggers are? Asking questions around, how would they seek help if they thought they weren’t coping, and helping them understand that asking for help is not shameful or weak. Girls are good at talking to other girls about their problems, traditionally , boys are not and for this reason, boys fall under the radar. This partly explains, why there is such a gender difference in the suicide figures.
Recognising what personality style our children are, do they have an introvert or extrovert personality?, enables us to help them understand that not everyone makes friends easily or on the first day. Not everyone needs to scurry to join the Pack. For my children, I don’t think they discovered their true tribe until the second year.
Agree a routine of regular communication that can slot into both of your routines….whether that’s a What’s app group family chat or a regular phone call once a week, outside the norm of the spontaneous chat. This way you can spot the signs of any “different tone” in their voice or flags that make you aware things are not as they say. Don’t stalk them on Social Media!
Finally a conversation around….what will happen if you don’t like it. One of my key beliefs, is that “no experience is wasted experience” . Getting to University and deciding that you don’t like it or the course, is no big deal, quit while you are ahead, you can sort the student loan and come home and re-evaluate, it doesn’t mean you are a loser or a dis-appointment. Help them understand that courage is good, burying your head in the sand, and not turning up to lectures because you are unhappy is not. Re-affirm that you support them either way in their journey towards finding their passion and purpose.
Send them off with the knowledge that whatever happens you love them un-conditionally, together with a fruit cake and a bottle of something to offer hospitality to others on their floor.