Thursday, 6 August 2015

Exam results - what if your child fails to make the grade?

 August 13th & 20th are emotional dates in the calendar – often depicted by jubilant smiling children waving glittering results.  But what about those children whose results are not up to scratch and their future looks less secure? How bad might it feel for a child who has been both protected from failure and from being objectively judged before now?  Children today face the additional emotional burden of public shame at the hands of social media.   Can parents help (or make things worse)?

The answer is Yes.  We now know, thanks to neurologial research, that the way parents (or primary carers) react, in this case to their child’s emotional meltdown, is crucially important.  Adult responses determine how quickly their child gets (emotionally) back on track, and it influences the way their child goes on to deal (psychologically) with future challenges and disappointments, in essence adults can subliminally support resilience & self worth. 
The ages between 10-25 are a period of massive brain change, where neurological pathways adapt and mould to fit day-to-day experiences (both situations and people).  The brain learns via mirror neurons, so what a parent says and what they do helps to establish behaviour patterns, which, if well trodden, like sheep tracks ultimately define (future) adult character. 
Parents with children about to open their results may want to know this so they can choose to have a clear plan, rather than leaving their reactions to chance. 

Things to bear in mind

·      When the limbic brain is in meltdown, the pre-frontal cortex shuts – so rational, logical discussion and reflection is not on the agenda.  At this age and stage, the ability to control subcortical feelings of rage, frustration, fear or anxiety is still Work In Progress in the teenage brain too.
·      On results day, Parents ideally should rein in either their frustrated, sympathetic or well-meaning cheerleader comments like: “Failing is good for you”  “So…what now?”  “I told you (subtext when you were glued to those screens) that you should be working!”  “There’s more to life than stupid A’Levels!”  “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!” Because the teenage brain is black & white and self centred (for good reasons), criticism or brushing it off is likely to be heard as “I’m not important/I don’t matter”.
·      A proactive and effective adult response needs to acknowledge the sadness or frustration and wait for the right moment to have a “what would you like to do next” solution-focused discussion. 
·      This is a period of natural Separation & independence.  Parents can help by not becoming enmeshed in “the problem” and instead be an anchor & a safe haven whilst their child owns their disappointment & sadness.  This is a period of child development where the parent/child dynamic needs to undergo a power shift, moving from being The Manager (You do as I say) to The Consultant (I am here if you need my help/wisdom/counsel)
·      Peer Pressure is a natural biological imperative.  Survival mechanisms, under the control of primitive areas of the brain, drive adolescents to need to be part of a group.  Social media and on-line communicating exacerbates the sense of “You’re in” or “You’re excluded” leaving many children suffering from high levels of anxiety, in this case if they are excluded from exam celebrations & university plans.  Take care that their phone is not exacerbating feelings of low self-worth

According to research, the quality and style of parenting received by a child is a better predictor of success than anything else.  There is no perfect parenting approach, but there are certain qualities, which if evident in family life, can provide the ideal growing conditions for a child, stability being one of them.  As parents ourselves, we know that being a parent today has its challenges.  Information and practical strategies can be supportive and helpful.  We are holding a Day Course for parents of children aged 10-24 in London on 28th September where parents can learn how to develop positive skills, self worth, resilience and confidence in their child.  We are pleased to be working in collaboration with Maudsley Learning, innovative leaders in accessible learning in mental health and wellbeing.  Help is at hand!