Finishing high school marks an important life transition that brings a number of memorable moments for students and parents alike: awards nights, graduation parties, exam prep and formals to name a few.
But nothing is as iconic for the Aussie school leaver – nor indeed as exciting – as the post-exam holiday that signals the end of their childhood, and the beginning of their adult years.
Parents, on the other hand, approach it a little more warily, regardless of whether it’s an official schoolies trip – the kind that takes place in Australia’s most popular beachside cities, often makes the evening news and draws an extra deployment of cops – or something more low-key. After all, it’s often the first time their children are away from them, largely unsupervised, for an extended period of time.
The worry, says child psychologist Deirdre Brandner, is completely normal, but it shouldn’t affect the experience of the teen involved.
“We know logically that our kids deserve this rite of passage, [that it’s] the next part of their journey,” she says. “But the reality of this venture does strike alarm in us. Parenting anxiety makes us [dwell] on all the things we think can go wrong.”
According to Brandner, it’s good to think of the schoolies experience as just “one more step” in the role that we play in guiding our children so that they are better able to navigate their own independence.
So how does a parent approach this milestone when they’re torn between absolute stress over what could go wrong and wanting to be supportive?
Brandner says that we should be moving beyond “allowing” our children to go into such experiences at this stage, and instead move to a phase that’s more about “connection, negotiation and expectation”.
“Our job is to help them make wise choices, especially when we are not around,” she says. “This is the premise of trust and independence. If you are not connected with your teen, they will not come to you when things go wrong. If you are still rule-setting and punishing, your teen will find a way to do what they want [and] you just won’t know.”
Brander says this time is about sharing guidance around potential challenges that only they can navigate, without projecting our own fears, anxieties or triggers on to them.
“If they’re 18, you cannot say ‘no drinking’, but you can set the expectation that you don’t get into a car with someone who is drinking, or that you need to manage your consumption in terms of poor decision making or risk taking,” she says. “As parents we need to accept the reality that we cannot protect our children from everything.”
Communication is key, Brandner says, even when topics are difficult – and communication is not one-way.
“We need to listen, not lecture,” she says. “The best conversations happen in the car, when they aren’t looking at you … the balance has to be between support and sharing wisdom.”
Conversations could begin with you wondering or asking about particular plans, in “gentle” ways that “allow them to reflect and share how they think they will respond to decisions or challenges”.
“Even if they don’t have [an] answer, or their response is frightening, you have given them the chance to think about the possibilities,” she says. “Never respond with: ‘Well, I think you … ’ Instead try: ‘Yeah, I heard that when John’s kids went to schoolies they …’
“You can explain that you will worry about them when they are away. They will probably say there is no need, [which is] your chance to have [a] discussion about how they plan to keep themselves and their friends safe.”
Some of Brandner’s other recommendations for parents include suggesting talking points about group rules (particularly if someone wants to spend the night away from the group); having a nominated sober and alert person each night that they’re away; boundaries they want to set for themselves; knowledge about embassy details if away; and common risks they should be aware of.
She also reminds parents that most schoolies destinations have very good security, plus the Red Frogs support group of volunteers that cater to young people’s needs.
“Don’t rent a place close by, frighten them with all the horror stories you have heard, threaten to punish them if things go wrong, stalk them on social media or rob [them] of the enjoyment of something special,” she says.
Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, academic and author of books for young adults and children