Helping teenagers to cope

Nick JohnstoneThe West Australian
Geraldton Grammar School principal Nick Johnstone says the community can help teenagers through rites of passage.
Camera IconGeraldton Grammar School principal Nick Johnstone says the community can help teenagers through rites of passage. Credit: Picture: Getty Images

In today’s society there are a number of concerns plaguing our teens.

They can be social issues such as relationship issues, social media concerns, pressures about making decisions, examination pressures.

They are even concerned about adult issues such as terrorism, climate change, human rights issues and Donald Trump.

Research conducted by RMIT in 2014 indicated that our children were happiest as 12 year olds and this dipped to its lowest point at 16 years of age.

The happiness ranking then recovers by the time the students finish school.

The same research also indicates that people are the happiest by the time they reach their 70s.

There are obvious reasons why this occurs in adolescents.

Things like the change in hormone levels in teens and changes in social groupings going from primary school to high school spring to mind. These issues are also obvious to their parents. The series of grunts occur in the house instead of cheerful conversations that were experienced in their younger years.

Parents have also started to take action on their concerns. The Independent Schools Council of Australia recently released a report comparing results of parent surveys on school choice undertaken in 2007 and in 2016. The report indicated a shift in parental expectation when it comes to choosing a school. The expected outcomes like educational excellence (32 per cent in 2006 to 33 per cent in 2016) was still ranked in the highest ranges but it was the increase in the pastoral elements such as providing a “supportive and caring environment” that had the most growth — moving from 17 per cent in 2007 to 24 per cent in 2017.

I was speaking with Arne Rubinstein recently about these issue. Dr Rubinstein is an expert in childhood development and in rites of passage as a tool for moving teens through these difficult years more successfully. He used the phrase “thriving not just surviving” to describe the skills and rites of passage teens need and desire.

Dr Rubinstein highlighted resilience, curiosity, adaptability, entrepreneurial thinking, emotional intelligence and the ability to pursue convictions (doing what you believe in, doing what is right).

These skills or traits are being recognised time and time again by professionals and employers as being the skills that our young people need. From a student wellbeing perspective, I see resilience as the key element in this whole process. Life can be difficult and life will have bumps.

As part of the process of building resilience, Dr Arne noted that rites of passage are often missing in the lives of teens and this then develops into risk-taking behaviours.

He noted that he would often see in the emergency room, young boys who had engaged in dangerous play as part of their own rites of passage.

The skateboard jumps, the quad bikes, drinking games, teen fights, trials with drugs are all part of boys seeking to be recognised as men and no longer being boys.

Dr Rubinstein noted that teenage girls appeared in emergency because they got themselves in difficult situations. “They often required treatment for sexual transmitted infections or required the morning after pill”. Year 12s also identify their end of school experiences such as “schoolies” as a rite of passage. This week can be a week filled with risk-taking behaviours.

Typical rites of passage are baptisms and confirmations, school graduation ceremonies, 18th or 21st birthday parties, weddings, retirement parties, and funerals.

These intentionally ritualised ceremonies help the individuals making the transition, as well as their relatives and friends, through an emotionally charged, tense time.

Most rites of passage are religious ceremonies and with the steady retraction of religious influence in our modern western society, these rites of passage are not being reinforced.

I argue that it is the responsibility of our community, including parents, grandparents, and schools, to help develop the appropriate rites of passage for our teens.

There are a number of things we can do to provide the community to allow “thriving not just surviving”.

Teens need to be provided with a safe environment to try new things, to explore, to experiment, to be curious without being judged or ranked. They need to be recognised and seen. They need to feel valued within the community and parents need to be present. So put that iPad away and go back to the dinner table. I know I can be guilty of this one.

There is an old African saying it takes a village to raise a child. This saying has always been a truism and it is more important than ever. Our children need us — all of us.

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