Parenting

The post-high school hole: how to help school leavers in a time of transition


One of the most significant life transitions for our children is finishing high school forever. There is no question that many students feel hugely excited to have finished school and are buoyed up by never having to attend again.

However for many students – especially those who don’t have a plan or who feel burnt out by years of study – it’s in these months after the summer holidays that reality sets in and some fall into what I call the “post-high school hole”.

Today’s children and teens appear to be less resilient and capable of dealing with setbacks and disappointments than previous generations due to a complex set of contributing factors. Many lack confidence and the attributes that enable success – persistence, organisation skills, self-regulation, verbal communication skills, goal-setting strategies and the hunger to strive for excellence despite disappointment.

The digital world, while having many positives, has contributed to a big increase in the entertainment sphere of our teens’ lives in particular. Whether it be never-ending social media updates, TikTok videos, selfies with an assortment of filters, sexting or gaming, today’s young people seem to spend less time in the real world developing the capacities to be competent, capable, resilient human beings.

Sadly, in 2020, marinating in the 24/7 news cycle might have further added to our young people’s sense of powerlessness, disillusionment and despair.

Last year not only had a global pandemic, we saw racial tension and riots, natural disasters, a plethora of fake news and online nastiness, economic turmoil, joblessness, and a huge rise in the number of young people seeking mental health support and extra strain on frontline suicide prevention services.

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We must prioritise the wellbeing of our highly impressionable, emotionally vulnerable school leavers. For 2020’s graduates, the post-high school hole risks being a whole lot deeper.

What’s worrying our young people

In a 2019 survey of 12-18-year-old boys for my book From Boys to Men, I noticed significant concern about the future. Many boys expressed serious worries about climate change, political unrest, increasing violence, an inability to buy their own home and increased mental health challenges – and that was pre-Covid-19.

I am sure teen girls share the same concerns and we know statistically many of them are struggling with much higher levels of self-harm, chronic anxiety and stress.

In the latest Mission Australia annual survey of more than 25,800 young people aged 15-19, young people nominated as their the top three personal concerns coping with stress, mental health and body image.

The evolving traumatic events of 2020 have affected everyone in some way. Students who usually excel and who have clear goals often carry an added burden as they progress through their final year of school (and that’s without a global pandemic). These high achievers are often very hard on themselves, and their ability to stay focused on their future studies, ambitions and dreams in a world filled with fear and negativity will be challenged.

Anxiety in adolescence has increased and with the forced changes that removed many of the protective factors in their lives last year – extracurricular activities, sport, the arts, rituals like school camps and formals, and being locked away from friends and peers – many are struggling overtly or silently.

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In many countries, schooling is still disrupted and unpredictable. Australia has fared much better, yet the year-long impact of stress is yet to be seen. Universities have been tipped upside down, with massive job losses, loss of overseas students and fewer courses available. Not only that, in Australia, the government has upped the cost of some humanities courses, thus dashing the dreams of many aspiring university students.

Unemployment rates are high and will take some time to recover as many businesses have closed or are seriously compromised. This will also affect our school leavers.

Prioritise hope building

The first thing we can do in our families and communities is to prioritise building hope in the lives of 2020 graduates.

Rather than having them focus on what they have lost and what they can’t have, help them find things they can do and that do matter. That may be helping out their friends, setting some personal goals to improve health and fitness, learning a new hobby, volunteering, creating uplifting playlists or helping out at an animal refuge.

Remind them of the power of having a gratitude practice in their lives – and research backs this up.

While things remain uncertain, it is a good opportunity to build their kitbag for life with more skills – cooking, learning to drive, setting financial goals, growing vegetables, making music, building, inventing, making or drawing something. This can give our young people a sense of competence and override any sense of powerlessness.

There are three important steps in restoring their weary spirits and enthusiasm for life, and motivating them to move forward, rather than staying disillusioned or stuck. One is having a sense of autonomy and control. Two is feeling they are able to do something well – competence. Finally, it’s knowing that they have significant people in their lives to support them.

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Have conversations with them that reignite their dreams, that show them that they can still make the world a better place and that reassure them they are loved fiercely and unconditionally, exactly as they are, no matter what happens. A good dose of kindness is also really helpful.

In years to come, having been a final year student in 2020 will be worn as a badge of honour as surely it will stand as the worst year ever to have graduated high school. However, to transition well, we cannot leave it to chance and they will need more support than ever before. We must step up.

  • Maggie Dent is a parenting author, educator and host of the ABC podcast Parental As Anything. Her latest book, From Boys to Men (Pan Macmillan), is out now



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