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The challenges of being a school leaver …or living with one!

Added on June 5, 2011


There’s no question that for many Australian families having a teenager in the final year of their schooling is stressful. As 2011 nears its mid-point it may be timely to consider some simple strategies that students (and their parents) may undertake to relieve or even prevent some of the end of year stress.

The final year of a young person’s school life is a milestone, as momentous as the first year was. For some it will be a launching pad into their adult life, whether that means embarking on further tertiary education or plunging into the work force. For others it may be a time of confusion and anguish, with anxiety about pending exams and worry over what will come next.

Some teenagers reach their late teens focused and ready to take on the world, but many are unsure about what they want to do after they leave school, and struggle to balance both external and internal pressures. External pressures, such as parental & school expectations, as well as competition from peers can lead to increased feeling of stress and anxiety. Social pressures also play a huge role at this age and relationships are often prioritised over schoolwork. Internal pressures may include negative self-talk, low self-esteem and fear of failure, and this combination can lead to apparent procrastination as the student becomes paralysed by their own anxiety. Not only is this stressful for the young person, but also for everyone they live with.

Here are some tips to help manage stress and keep perspective. And who knows, you may even enjoy the remainder of the year!

Discover your Strengths.

Acknowledge what you do well, instead of focusing on what you do badly. The nature of school assessments is that they tend to draw attention to one’s weaknesses. But studies have shown that better results are achieved by focusing on what you do well. Seligman & Peterson’s Values in Action Project (VIA) led to the identification of 24 human character traits that were equally valued across cultures. From this study they developed an online self-test (Go to www.viacharacter.org). Why not invest 20 mins in self-discovery? Take the test to identify the top 5 of your 24 “core strengths”, then use them in new and innovative ways when studying subjects that may not come naturally to you. For example, if one of your strengths is “Creativity” and you find yourself struggling with remembering formulae in Chemistry or dates in History, you can use your creativity to develop new ways to jog your memory.

It’s also helpful to change your perspective – we don’t have strengths and weaknesses, we have strengths that we use frequently and easily, and other strengths that we neglect and need to develop. And learning how to develop these underused strengths is an important life skill, as development of character and continuing to grow and mature doesn’t stop when you leave school.

Take time to do things you’re passionate about.

We mostly enjoy doing things that we’re good at. And being good at doing something makes us feel good about our self. In fact, not only do we enjoy such activities but we also get a sense of what is known in Positive Psychology as Flow . Flow is a state in which one is intensely focused on the present moment and fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus. There might be a sense that time stands still or, more often that it passes faster than it actually does. And the end goal is often just an excuse for the process; so doing is more rewarding than finishing. You might get this feeling from playing a musical instrument, going for a run, painting, solving a maths problem, or anything that gives you a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment. Flow experiences leave us feeling more capable and skilled, more together than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and the world in general – ready to face the hard slog ahead (and to be nice to the people we live with).

But take care: there is a delicate balance between the challenge and a person’s skill level. If the challenge is not enough, boredom sets in, and if too great anxiety may result. Make sure your flow activity is reducing your stress, not increasing it.

Learn to be Mindful.

Mindfulness is remembering that all you really ever have is the present moment and that your life is made up of lots of “present moments”. Too often we live in a state of rehashing (the past) and rehearsing (the future), one of which is gone and the other hasn’t happened yet. Teenagers, in particular, never really live in the present because they’re always planning the next thing they’re about to do; or they’re “multi-tasking” – writing an assignment, whilst on Facebook, texting their friends and watching TV (all at once!) As Jon Kabot-Zinn says, we’ve become “Human Doings” instead of “Human Beings”.

Small children know how to be mindful, if we let them. Just watch a child playing with dolls and talking to their imaginary friends, or blowing detergent bubbles and watching them fly off to the heavens, or eating their favourite food and discovering its texture by squeezing it through their hands or rubbing in on their cheeks! They are totally engrossed in the moment, not in what was, or what may be later, but what is now. Why not engage your “inner child” and acknowledge what you are doing right now, in the present: whether that is simply eating a meal, or going for a walk or driving a car, being mindful is about enjoying and savouring that moment, doing just one thing at a time.

Yet Mindfulness can be even more than just being aware of and appreciating your surroundings. It also allows you to discover your intuitive self, that part of you beyond thought, beyond emotions, where your “gut feeling” resides. It teaches you to tune into and trust that 6th sense in the pit of your belly, the one that rarely leads you astray. A survey done on how successful business people make important decisions found that the majority placed high value on these intuitive feelings. They described how they would collect as much information as they could, analyse the data, speak to relevant people; but after processing all this, the final decision would rest on whether the feeling in their “gut”, their intuition, was supportive of the facts and figures.

For the student, learning to listen to your inner wisdom may guide you to look after your physical self by eating correctly, incorporating healthy activity into your routine and ensuring you get enough restful sleep. It may also teach you to believe in your ability to do the best work that you’re capable of doing. For the student’s family, learning to be Mindful may help you learn to respond thoughtfully rather than react to any rise in emotional temperature in the household as exams get closer.

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About Judith Lissing

Judith Lissing is a Clinical Hypnotherapist and Wellness Coach, with 15 years experience in teaching stress management and meditation. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree with Honours in Immunology and a Masters degree in Public Health, both from the University of NSW. She is also an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of NSW since 1999. Judith is trained in Wellness Coaching with Wellcoaches U.S. and holds a Diploma in Hypnotherapy. Prior to coaching professionally, Judith held a statewide management role with NSW Health working with all levels of staff across the health sector.




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