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Our teenagers having lunch in the school
Published
14 September 2017

The terrible teens. Or are they?

​​​Recently, there have been a few articles in the news about how tough it is to be a parent of a teenager (see these links 1, 2, 3). I often read these and think of them in light of what St Catherine’s is teaching students about positive psychology.

There is no doubt (it has been empirically studied), being a teenager is the worst – especially between the ages of 14 and 16. We know this as adults because we remember it well. We know this as teachers because we see it every year, and in 10 years’ time I will know it all over again when my innocent cherubs become teenagers. Why is this so? What can we do to prevent it or decrease its impact? And how do we get through these years to be the fabulous Year 12 girls about to sit for their HSC?

One of the first things I did in my role as Director of Positive Psychology was to analyse the data of the ACER Social-Emotional-Wellbeing testing we have been doing here at school since 2014.

As I stare at the spreadsheet, I notice  the ‘teenage slump’ in wellbeing is happening a bit earlier – from Year 10  down to Year 9 and sometimes even in Year 8.  But, and it’s a good but,  at St Catherine’s the girls are rebounding out of it faster than they were a few years ago, and this recovery is long-lasting.

Articles abound about the neurological reasons for the teenage years being tough, so I won’t delve into that, but instead I will talk about what St Catherine’s does to promote resilience in teenagers. In Year 8 we focus the Academic Care program on forming positive relationships, because it is these relationships that will help the girls through the challenges of Year 9. We organise professional speakers from the Black Dog Institute, Beyond Blue, Headspace and also some sleep experts to talk to the girls about the real mental health issues facing their age group. Our mobile phone policy (namely, no phone until the school day is over) has promoted better conversations at recess and at lunchtime. Many girls now play handball (always beating the teachers who join in the game!) which improves wellbeing and decreases stress.

We promote kindness and service through charity works and give Year 10 students the opportunity to give back to the community through Project STC in Term 4.  Students always return from STC with a renewed perspective on the world, and a greater appreciation for the impact they can have in the world. Studies constantly show that demonstrating kindness to others, whether it be toward friends or to the greater world community, increases a person’s happiness more than being kind to yourself. This is why at the end of this term all Year 12 girls will be crocheting homeless mats for One Million Women; and it is also why we are taking the social pressure off Year 10 students by not having a formal from 2018. St Catherine’s promotes growth mindsets by always reminding students that they have opportunities to improve through the Prep Centre, mathematics and English workshops, and Wednesday Week B masterclasses. And, ultimately, we can say these measures are working because the teenage ‘dip’ is getting shorter.

As parents there are many things we can do, but I would say the worst is to stress out about it. Professor Lea Water’s book The Strength Switch has some great strategies about working with your child’s strengths rather than focusing on her weaknesses. What does this look like? It’s quite simple – imagine you have a daughter who is very good at organising her social calendar, but not so good at organising her bedroom. You want to yell at her for having a messy room. Instead, remind her how good she is at organising events with friends, and how it would be great if she could use that strength to organise her own area at home. By showing them that you know they have strengths, you are filling the gaps with their strengths rather than pointing out weaknesses.

In family downtime, encourage conversations about what is happening in all your lives instead of overfilling the family calendar, because as Water’s writes, time to goof off  (if you’ll pardon the Americanism) is much more important than you think. Try using something like the Forest App to measure how much screen-free time you are having as a family. Give your teenagers responsibilities at home so they can learn some independence; spend time talking to them about issues beyond their own; and share some of the challenges you are facing, so they know they are not alone.

Mrs Daisy Turnbull Brown
Director of Positive Psychology
B Arts B Com Grad Dip Ed MA (Theology)

Follow our dedicated Positive Psychology Twitter account: @StCathsPosPsy