“What can I do? I have to do something to make it better.”
I can imagine parents all over the country have been thinking this in the past couple of weeks as their children were immersed in the nightmare of A’ Level, GCSE and BTEC results.
The initial panic may be subsiding now the Government has U-turned and is accepting Centre Assessed Grades but there is still uncertainty. Can I go to the sixth form college I want? Are there still places on my preferred university course? Can I do the apprenticeship I wanted?
Plenty of young people have felt like their life has been ruined and I’ve heard more than one person say of course not. It’s possible and maybe probable that when they look back in years to come, they won’t feel their life was ruined, but that’s no help now. I know what it feels like to realise things have gone wrong. When it’s happened to me, it was like my insides fell out. The mind goes blank. It’s like you’re frozen to the spot. Then all sorts of thoughts start piling in, from self-annihilation to looking for someone or something to blame.
The uncertainty may not be as intense now as in recent days but it’s still present. It’s natural for parents to want to fix it for their child, to make them feel better. Many will have tried to find the perfect set of words or the right piece of advice to make the anguish and distress vanish.
“Don’t worry, it will all work out in the end.”
“Put it behind you and move on to something else.”
“You didn’t really want to do that at that university anyway.”
“Never mind. Plenty more opportunities out there for you.”
But, in truth this moment is awful. Pretending otherwise doesn’t help anyone in the long term. When someone’s felt experience is painful, if you suggest it isn’t you’re just denying their reality, which doesn’t help.
Waiting for exam results is always going to be stressful. Add the algorithm and the Government’s slow U-turn into the mix, and stress and anxiety are bound to be at the top of the scale.
When Mum, Dad or someone really important says “never mind, it’s only a blip, it’s not that bad, everything’s going to be okay” it’s easy to hear a subliminal message that says “I can’t really cope with or am not very interested in your distress, so please bottle it up or take it somewhere else, and move on”. They don’t find out how to cope healthily with stressful situations. And life is bound to throw up plenty problems and challenges so it’s a lesson we all need to learn.
In my psychotherapy practice I see the long-term impact of stress experienced when young not having been contained by the adult in the room.
My advice is to ask about and then validate the experience of the individual. What they are feeling and thinking really matters. They need to have the opportunity to voice it, to be heard and understood. This is not yet the moment for solutions and problem solving. It might sound easy, but it definitely isn’t. It’s incredibly challenging to sit with someone as they experience and express real distress, but it’s crucial. They need to be heard.
Next, support the young person to identify and explore the options that suit them. It’s easy to advocate the solution you think is the right one. Afterall, we all know what’s best for someone else, particularly our children! If the way ahead is going to work for the individual, they need to find it for themselves. That doesn’t mean you leave them to it. Get involved. With love and empathy, ask questions and challenge them in a way that helps them reflect, build a solid sense of what’s right for them. Then they’ll be equipped to reach their own decisions.