Friday 30 September 2016

Parents must start leaving their children alone to learn life lessons

Stella O'Malley

Published 12/08/2015 | 02:30

'When Geldof and his friends nervously rang home to get their Leaving Cert results, all of a sudden he felt like an idiot. He alone among his friends had failed his Leaving Cert'
'When Geldof and his friends nervously rang home to get their Leaving Cert results, all of a sudden he felt like an idiot. He alone among his friends had failed his Leaving Cert'

There had been great camaraderie among Bob Geldof and his friends as they worked the building sites in London during the summer they first left school.

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It's now a long-forgotten rite of passage - these days Leaving Cert students are more likely to live it up in Magaluf than mix cement in London - but the day the Leaving Cert results come out is still a great equaliser among the different generations.

And when Geldof and his friends nervously rang home to get their Leaving Cert results, all of a sudden he felt like an idiot. He alone among his friends had failed his Leaving Cert - his friends had exaggerated how badly they had done and unexpectedly Bob had to contemplate his failure on his own, while his friends whooped and cheered and planned to go out and get plastered.

This exact feeling of disappointment, nausea and sharp loneliness is no doubt reverberating all over the country this morning, where amidst the shouts and cheers of delight, there will be some poor kids who simply want to go and hide under a rock.

Some parents' instinctive reaction is to hide their own disappointment and try to comfort their crestfallen kids. Other parents will want to roar at their layabout teenagers and give them a metaphorical kick up the backside.

Red hot rage or tea and sympathy, it really doesn't matter because both reactions are ill-advised. Instead parents really should take a giant step back from the situation. This is not your problem. And this is not your golden teachable moment. This is your child's golden teachable moment and it is occurring just at the cusp of adulthood.

Many parents of teenagers are simply terrified of suicide - and rightfully so as it is perhaps the worst tragedy that can befall a family - and perhaps this is why parents tend to dash in, determined to rescue their kids from all emotional pain.

It is, of course, important for parents to hover nearby, always ready to support when their teenagers need a soft place to fall, but it is definitely not the parents' place to jump in and offer plans, solutions and panicky pep talks about the future.

It may go against all parental instinct, but supportive silence, encouraging gestures of solidarity and a limited amount of well-judged supportive comments will work much more effectively than continuous nervous prattle at this crucial time.

If they are given the opportunity, the teenagers who are disappointed with their results will soon figure out whether their peers might have worked harder than they did. They will become conscious that the future is uncertain and that serious work is required to succeed in the world. These are significant lessons, being taught at a heightened moment. Do parents really want to get in the way of these life lessons?

The Leaving Cert results are out and a sharp dose of reality might be setting in. Perhaps the only good thing about reality is that it is seldom as awful as it at first appears.

The disappointed teenagers may feel that their future is doomed and yet, with a bit of creative planning mixed with the right attitude, they will find that there are many, many ways to reach a certain goal.

There are hordes of people who have succeeded in life having done a less than wonderful Leaving Cert.

Lorraine Keane applied to study veterinary or architecture but didn't get the required points and so she did a Foundation course in Broadcasting in Ballyfermot. From this course she got her job in AA Roadwatch and off she went.

On the other hand, Marian Keyes did very well in her Leaving Cert and chose to study Law in UCD.

"I decided to study law for the simple reason that I got the grades and it pleased my parents. I was 18 and clueless and I wanted to stave off real life for another three years and frankly I didn't care what I studied. I don't think studying law has done anything to shape who I am today - I engaged with it only on the most superficial level," she says.

Although we hope that our child's future will be a primrose path, we parents can unfortunately rest assured that there will be many pitfalls along the way. The most unhelpful response from the concerned parent today is to get in the way of the learning experience - while the most constructive role a parent can play during this emotional day is to provide their children with the mental space to learn from their disappointing results.

Before the crazy celebrations begin tonight, perhaps you could go for a walk in nature with your teenager, or go for lunch somewhere special, or simply veg out with some goodies in front of some mindless TV?

How you relax doesn't matter, but at some stage during the day you could perhaps do worse than communicate the wise words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters."

Stella O'Malley is a child psychotherapist and author of 'Cotton Wool Kids'

Irish Independent

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