Year 12 Coming Back Stronger: Building motivation and reaching your goals
Already a vulnerable period for the development of mental illness, Covid-19 has added another layer of stress to the HSC year.
Recently released research from Swinburne University has confirmed the enormous impact Covid-19 is having on youth mental health. Results showed skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression in young people and concerning levels of pessimism about the future. With unemployment on the rise, this pressure on youth mental health is only predicted to worsen.
Coming Back Stronger aims to proactively help students get back on track with their studies through the provision of evidence-based psychological strategies that improve motivation, energy, focus and optimism for the future.
The student presentation covers:
|Normalisation of emotions and behaviours||Structured Problem Solving|
|Building motivation||Understanding ambivalence|
|Goal setting||Acceptance and Commitment Therapy|
|Links to external services||Distress tolerance|
Coming Back Stronger
Hi everyone & welcome!
I'm Jess and together with The Kidman Centre we've put together this presentation specifically for you young people in senior school or university who are having to deal with the extraordinary, life-changing circumstances we find ourselves in due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We've got some great ideas and practical strategies in this video that will help you not to just 'get through' the current crisis, but will give you the skills to build your resilience, to learn how to increase your motivation, adopt good habits and discover a new mindset that will benefit you not just now, but for the rest of your life.
So let's get started! Here's what we going to cover today:
First, let's get some perspective about why this is so tough and why it makes sense if you're unmotivated and stressed out.
Then we'll look at what you're doing and thinking that may be getting in the way of you making progress and feeling OK.
We're going to explore why it's so difficult to stick to goals and I'm going to teach you some practical skills to help you get back on track.
And then we're going to talk about how to build resilience, how to look after yourself, get the support you need, and develop a new, improved vision of yourself for the future.
OK, sound good?
There's also a bunch of worksheets and resources that go along with this presentation. so please make use of these and take the time to jot down your answers to the questions as we go through them, because we want to make this as interactive as possible
OK, so first of all let's just take a moment to acknowledge and reflect on the huge impact this global crisis of COVID-19 is having on every single one of us. Our world has turned upside down, almost in an instant. None of us has had to deal with anything like this before and frankly it is devastating. Not only are there real fears about our health and safety, but we've been facing lockdowns and social isolation, we may sadly have lost people who are dear to us or worry about elderly relatives, we may have lost our jobs or our plans for the future. Our normal routines and supports, our pleasurable activities have been disrupted. We can't really plan for the future because we don't know what the future will look like next week, let alone next month or next year. It's crazy! So it's no wonder we're feeling anxious, stressed, unmotivated, sad, maybe even depressed.
And that's the same for all of us, no matter what age or stage of life we're at. But for you guys who are trying to finish your schooling or going through uni at this most critical time in your lives it's doubly hard - this completely sucks! You're already dealing with so much and now - you have a global pandemic to add to the mix. Great! We talk to many students at the Kidman Centre, and so we know many of you are struggling to stay motivated and focused. It's hard not to worry about the future and because of that you might be having difficulty sleeping or getting back into a good routine. Maybe you've neglected your fitness or developed unhealthy eating habits. You may find yourself feeling angry and ripped off that your plans have had to change. Because the truth is, there's an understandable sense of loss and grief that's real in this situation - you can't hang out with your friends as much, you have no idea if your end-of-year celebrations will go ahead - all these important milestones that are part of your rite of passage into adulthood are in doubt. Learning to live with uncertainty is very hard for anyone, but when you're trying to plan for your future it can feel overwhelming. My best advice is don't look too far ahead. We don't know what the future holds and all that 'what if' thinking only breeds stress and anxiety. So let go of the things that are outside your control and try to focus on the things you do have some control over - how you think and what you do. And I'm going to show you how you can do that, how you can rise above even the most difficult of circumstances.
The first thing I want to tell you is that how well you do in your study or in life is not the result of circumstances like a global pandemic or innate intelligence. Neuroscientists who study the brain and learning have discovered that neural connections grow and deepen most when we make mistakes or when we have to face difficult challenges. People tend to adopt one of two mindsets - the 'fixed' mindset believes that you're either born smart or you're not. However, those in the 'growth' mindset camp understand that the brain is like a muscle - it strengthens and grows as a direct result of making mistakes and learning from them, as a direct result dealing with adversity and being challenged with complex problems. And this is exactly what you're all facing right now, so I encourage you to develop a 'growth' mindset, to understand that there are opportunities right here and now to come out of this smarter and stronger, and to develop the skills you need to succeed.
So, you know that we can't change anything until we know what the problem is, right? Well, what I want you to do is just take a moment now to think about all the struggles you're having right now and jot them down on that first worksheet in front of you. For example, it could be trouble sticking to a study routine, it could be doing regular exercise, keeping your room tidy, or eating healthy foods. And then if you can note how that problem or struggle makes you feel, what feelings are coming up about that struggle, and also what you say to yourself about it, that little voice in your head that starts chattering away when you think about this problem.
I've given you an example there at the top: the problem is difficulty concentrating on study - which makes me feel frustrated and anxious - and in my head I can hear myself saying things like "It's all too hard, I might as well give up and watch Netflix instead". Even if you can only think of one example, that's totally fine, just try and jot something down. I'll give you a couple of minutes to do this.
(insert 1st worksheet here - pause 1.5 minutes)
(cut to presenter)
Ok, so let's focus for a moment on the thinking, or self-talk, part of that exercise. What did you notice? Often when we're struggling with something, our self-talk becomes quite harsh and critical - we tend to blame ourselves for our problems and say things like "what's wrong with me?", "I should be able to do this", "it's too hard", "I'm not smart enough", "I might as well give up," "I'm going to fail". Now did you notice any of that in your own self-talk?
So in order to change, the first skill we have to develop is to change our thinking, our self-talk, because it's not always accurate and it's not always fair. And particularly now, in this time of a global pandemic we need to learn to be compassionate to ourselves - to talk to that worried, angry, scared part of us as if we're talking to our best friend, to accept that it's understandable to be struggling in these circumstances and that it's not our fault. That doesn't let you off the hook, by the way, it doesn't mean you can lie on the couch and watch Netflix all day, it just means you can be kind to yourself in the situation you find yourself in, but also to take responsibility for building the skills to work through it.
So, moving on to the next worksheet, you can see that there's a space for you to experiment with this - to try another, more compassionate way of talking to yourself. Pick one of your current struggles and negative statements and imagine your best mate had just said this - so, what kind of supportive, encouraging words could you give back to them? What would you say to them? It might include something along the lines of "You're going through a really tough time right now, you're not expected to have all the answers. This isn't your fault. Just focus on the small things that are in your control and don't look too far ahead" or something similar to that. I'm sure you can find some words that are supportive and encouraging. This is about practicing being your own cheerleader, and it really helps! Again, have a go at this and I'll be back in a minute.
(Insert Worksheet 2 - 1.5 minutes)
(Back to presenter)
Ok how did you go? Hopefully you were able to come up with a way of talking to yourself that's much kinder (and actually did you notice, probably more accurate?) and maybe you even discovered that it makes you feel a little bit better when you talk to yourself with compassion and understanding, rather than beating yourself up. I can't stress enough how important it is to develop helpful self-talk, as it allows us to be proactive and feel good about ourselves.
It would be nice if it was just that simple to build motivation, but unfortunately in order to change, it's not just our thoughts that keep us stuck, it's what we do or don't do - our behaviour in other words.
Let me explain using an example of mine to help you understand. OK so because I had some extra time on my hands during the recent lockdown I thought I'd learn a new skill and so I enrolled in an online course. To be honest I thought it wouldn't be too challenging, but it turns out it was much harder than I thought. So that was my struggle, trying to complete a course of study and making lots of mistakes. I was feeling frustrated and had thoughts like "why am I doing this anyway?" 'What's the point". So because of that whenever I thought about sitting down and doing some study, I instead found other things to do that I preferred - going out for coffee with a friend, checking Facebook, watching TV shows, hey even cleaning the house became preferable to pushing myself to do something hard. So basically I was avoiding and procrastinating. At the time it made me feel better because I was getting pleasure from those other activities and I felt relief that I didn't have to struggle with something that really challenged me. But the long-term consequence was that I started to feel bad about my lack of effort - I'd paid for the course and I was wasting my money, the deadlines were piling up but the work wasn't getting done, which made me more anxious. I was saying stuff like "what's wrong with me?" "I'm so lazy", "why can't I just do it?". But the longer I left it the harder it seemed to re-start, so guess what - i'd just procrastinate some more and then feel even worse...and so the cycle continued.
This is the trap we all fall into when we struggle with motivation - it's easier to get the instant short-term rewards, than think about those longer-term consequences of the actions we take or don't take.
So thinking about that, can you think how that might relate to an example of yours from the first sheet you filled out? If so, pick one thing you're struggling with right now and see if you can use Worksheet 3 to pinpoint how you typically deal with this problem - what do you do in the short-term and what effect does it have on solving the problem longer-term?
I'll give you a moment to reflect on that and jot down anything that comes to mind - you can always work more on this later in your own time but just see if you can start to think about this for a minute or two and then i'll be right back with you.
(insert worksheet 3 - 1.5 min pause )
(back to presenter)
Alright, welcome back - I hope you made some discoveries about yourself and how your behaviour, the things you typically do, can contribute to how easy or hard it is to solve the problems you're facing.
So before we get into how to change this, how to build motivation and good habits instead, let's talk about why we do this - why do we procrastinate and get distracted so easily when it's clearly not an advantage longer-term and makes it harder to achieve our goals?
Basically, in a nutshell, like all animals in the animal kingdom, we're hard-wired to respond to immediate gratification, instant rewards if you like. If something tastes good, we want more of it, if something tastes disgusting we'll avoid it. We're also hard-wired to expend the least amount of energy as possible to get what we want, because that's more efficient, right? Why would I bother spending a whole day climbing a mountain in the hope there might be a tree bearing delicious fruit, when I have a slightly less tasty but perfectly adequate food source right here, right now? But, since the time of our early evolution when we were living off the land and foraging and hunting, our world has changed immensely. So if we translate that instinctive, innate human nature to our modern world, you can see how difficult it is to overcome our natural instincts - there are so many opportunities everywhere for instant gratification - TV, Facebook, Instagram, take-away food just to mention a few. Why wouldn't we gravitate to what's comfortable and instantly gratifying instead of striving for those distant hard-to-achieve goals? We also like to run on auto-pilot - we're creatures of habit, we like our routine, so you can see how trying to make changes that are uncomfortable, that might push us out of our comfort zone for longer-term advantages is really HARD! We're not lazy, we're not bad people, we just have to find a way to overcome our natural tendency to take the easy, immediate option.
So how do we get started? How do we get motivated? How do we become that awesome person that gets stuff done?
First of all, let's just get rid of one big myth about motivation - when you're thinking about a task you've got to tackle, how many times have you said (or maybe heard someone else say) - "Meh, I'm just not in the mood", or "I don't feel inspired right now" ? This is a huge trap we fall into - we think we need to be ready and motivated before we start a task. But the actual truth is, if you think about what I said earlier, most of the time our human nature is going to want to take the comfortable, easy way. Anything that challenges us, anything that takes us out of our comfort zone is going to create anxiety and then that anxiety is going to put the brakes on - "Whoa, no, I'm not ready". So we can't rely on our emotions to guide our actions, because that's literally doing things in the wrong order - the feel-good part, or the motivation if you will, comes as a result of taking action, of taking those small steps every day that build confidence that we're moving towards our goals, that gives us the pride that we're acting in accordance with our values about the sort of person we aspire to be. I'm going to talk about values and how these can help guide our actions in just a moment, but I can't stress enough that it's the things we have most control over, which are our thoughts and our actions, that are going to make the difference here.
OK, so let's try converting those struggles and problems you're currently having into goals or solutions, using that first worksheet as a guide. On Worksheet 4 you'll see two columns - on the left hand side are the things you're currently struggling with, so write those in, and then on the right hand side see if you can convert each of those into a goal. For instance, the example there is feeling isolated. In order to solve that problem, we need to turn it into a goal, which in this case would be getting more connected with our family and friends.
Goals can cover any areas of life, not just study or schoolwork - they might be fitness related or health related, or to do with family or relationships. So just take a moment to have a go at that.
(insert worksheet 4 - 1.5 min pause)
(back to presenter)
Welcome back. Did you manage to come up with some goals for yourself? Setting goals is good, they're important - but the problem is they're usually too big, and too far in the future, and because of that they can often feel overwhelming.
The other problem is that I might achieve a goal, like getting a good grade or cleaning up my room, but if i've done it by last minute cramming the night before, or spending a whole afternoon having a blitz on my room, yes, I might feel good when it's done, but that good feeling is only going to last a short while, and I haven't actually changed anything about my habits. So the procrastination will continue, the mess is going to start building up again and before long I'm back to square one and I haven't made any changes - I'm still a messy person, I'm still someone who leaves studying until the last moment. So although it's important to keep goals in mind, what we need to work on to make lasting change are those small, daily habitsthe things we do on a regular basis.
There's lots of ways to do this, but I particularly like some of the ideas that James Clear talks about in his book "Atomic Habits", as well as Mel Robbins' ' 5-second Rule'. You can check them out on Youtube and you'll find some references to their work at end of your handbook.
Basically, with the 5-second rule, Mel Robbins is talking about the discovery she made that when we think about doing something, we have roughly a 5-second window to act on that thought before our mind intervenes and shuts it down, particularly if it's something challenging and outside our comfort zone. She calls it 'the emergency brake". So If I think "I need to start that essay", if I don't immediately get up and walk to my desk within 5 seconds of having that idea, my mind will come up with a reason or an excuse not to - "it's too hard" " I don't know how to start", and I'll procrastinate instead. “I’ll get up really early and do it tomorrow.”
So this idea of taking immediate action is a bit like what I call "The Nike Principle" - the "Just do it" principle. Just show up, sit down at your desk and start writing. The hardest part always is starting something - page 1 is much harder than page 2 or 3 or 4, and you need to accept that you're never, ever going to feel like it. Well, maybe sometimes - if you're particularly inspired, but most of the time never ever. But just show up anyway. And when you show up on a consistent, daily basis, not only are you building a path to your goal but you're building confidence in yourself, you're building trust in yourself, and your motivation starts to rise as a consequence. Can you see how that works?
Importantly, we need to try and make it as easy as possible to show up - small, sustainable habits lead to lifelong changes but they're only possible because they're small. If you say to yourself "I'm going to study for 6 hours straight tonight for my maths exam", if you don't achieve it you're going to beat yourself up, and it's quite likely you won't achieve it. Sometimes we fail because we make those steps too big or too difficult.
So on the worksheet in front of you, I think we're up to Worksheet 5 now, there's some ideas about how to make these steps small and achievable. Have a look at these and see if any of them could be useful for you:
(Insert Worksheet 5 - presenter's voice over)
One is to set yourself a reasonable time-limit. That might be as simple as 2 minutes - "I'm going to give myself 2 minutes to quickly wipe down the bathroom surfaces", or 2 minutes to pick up the clothes on the floor and put them in the washing basket. I'm going to give myself 10 minutes to write the first paragraph of that english essay, or jot down some notes, or just write anything basically. If that's all you get done, brilliant that's great, you've kept your part of the contract with yourself. But you might also find that once you start it's easier to do a little bit more, because you've got the momentum, you've started an action and then it's easier to keep going.
The other thing you can do to help you, is to remove those distractions that are intrinsically rewarding - put your phone in another room, shove it in a drawer, put it on silent. If possible work somewhere where there are less distractions and noise. Now, if you're in lockdown and all the family's home that's going to be really hard. If you don't have your own space that's going to be really hard. If it's too noisy at home, and if you're not in lockdown, then try and get out and find somewhere quieter to work - maybe the school library or the local library. But try as much as possible to get rid of anything that's likely to distract you from what your task is.
Another idea is to combine what you want to do with what you don't want to do. For instance, I don't like cleaning my room, but if I put headphones on and listen to music or a podcast it makes the task less unpleasant.
It's important to be specific. Make a clear plan or intention and write it down somewhere and stick it somewhere where you can see it easily:
Make sure to Include: when, where, what, for how long. For example, you could say:
"This week, I am going for a 1/2 hr walk around the neighbourhood every day at 4.30pm"
It really also helps to reward yourself for every day you show up and stick to your plan (we like instant rewards, remember?). The reward can be as simple as marking off each day's achievement on a calendar or chart, giving yourself a tick, or it might be a tangible reward like watching an episode of your favourite series later in the day
(Back to Presenter)
Which brings us to what I think is the final key to the puzzle of motivation - which is our sense of identity and values, our inspiration for doing the things we do and showing up every day no matter what.
So what are values and how are they different to goals? OK, so goals are things you can tick off, like running the City to Surf - they are things we want to achieve or get. Values on the other hand don't have an endpoint or outcome, rather they're things we want to do or be, like being a good friend, or being trustworthy. Values are about what matters to you – what's important to you in the big picture. And, interestingly, the more you take action guided by your values the more likely you are to be motivated and to feel a sense of well-being.
Have a look at Worksheet 6:
(cut to worksheet 6)
What we're trying to do here is figure out what's really important to us, what we stand for, what sort of person do we want to be?
So let's do a little time-travelling. Imagine that it's 10 years in the future. It's your birthday and everyone is sharing stories about 2020.
What stories do you want people to share about you? What would you like them to be saying about how you coped with this unbelievable time in our history?
What stories would you want to tell about this time, about how you coped with this pandemic and lockdown in the middle of your final years of school, or early years of studying at uni. What did you learn about yourself, how did you grow?
Another way of looking at this is to think about, what are the things you want to be known for?
For instance - I was that person that...got stuff done despite the difficulties, I was there for my friends and family
This is going to take some time to think about, so do what you can in the time you have now and maybe come back to it later if you don't get it finished.
(pause for 2 mins)
(back to presenter)
The reason that values are so important is that once we have an idea of what sort of person we aspire to be, it can help guide the decisions we make everyday, and helps motivate us to do those things that aren't instantly gratifying.
Let me explain that a little a bit more - often we focus on the goal instead of the habits needed to get to that goal. If you think back to the previous worksheets, the goals you identified might have been big and far off in the future, but it's the small daily habits that are going to make the difference.
So my goal may be to run a marathon, but actually, the habit I need to get into is to train every day for however many months to achieve that goal. If I only focus on the goal, there are going to be days when it's hard to show up - it's too cold, it's raining, I'm sore, and so on.
But if instead of focusing on the goal, I focus on my identity, it makes it a whole lot easier:
Instead of 'I want this', it becomes "I am this":
If I say to myself, “I'm an athlete" instead of "I want to run a marathon", or "I'm the type of person who likes to learn, who never quits, who enjoys new challenges, or is a good friend or "i'm good at...whatever it might be, whatever your special skill might be", then it makes a huge difference because you then start acting in a way that's in line with who you believe yourself to be, who you aspire to be. You may be thinking "I don't have any special skills or high aspirations" - that's OK, there will still be things that I'm sure are important to you - trying your best, persisting with something, helping others for instance.
So true behaviour change is actually linked to identity - and once you've recognised and acknowledged what's important to you, how you think about yourself, then it's so much easier to show up each day even if you're not super-motivated.
I hope you're starting to see how all this all ties together. If you take a look at Worksheet 7 you'll see how you can use the ideas I've talked about today to formulate a plan of action for yourself. Let's work through this together using my example from earlier
(insert Worksheet 7)
OK so I identify as someone who loves to learn new things. it's also really important to me to finish something that I started.
What I'm struggling with right now is completing the online course I started
What I'm saying to myself is "it's too hard" " Why am I even bothering?"
What I'd say to a friend: "I know it's hard right now with all the worry and distraction of COVID-19, but remember it's OK to make mistakes, that's how we learn and grow. You can do this"
What's my goal? To pass the course. What's getting in the way? I'm procrastinating and doing other things instead of studying. The consequence is i'm feeling discouraged and disappointed in myself.
What things can I do on a daily basis that are in line with my values and how I see myself?
I can set a specific intention: "This week I'm going to study for my course every morning for one hour between 10-11am"
or I could commit to 10 minutes of study and if it's not working I'll go and do something else for 5 minutes but then I need to come back and try again
I'm going to put my phone on silent and put it in another room
I'm not sure if I could combine it with music without it being distracting, but I could try maybe some classical music in the background.
If I achieve my goal I'll give myself a tick on my calendar. I'll also reward myself by catching up with a friend or watching a movie later.
I'll give you a couple of minutes to put in your own ideas.
(pause 2 mins)
(back to presenter)
I hope these ideas have helped you to think about yourself differently, and what you can change right here, right now, to start being the best version of yourself. I'd really recommend taking some time either straight after this video finishes, or sometime during the next few days to go back over the worksheets and finish them if you haven't already.
Let's talk about resilience for a moment. Resilience can mean many things, but to me it means the mental and emotional strength to handle difficulties, to overcome tough times and come back stronger. Resilience isn't something that fixed - it isn't a quality that you either possess or don't possess. It’s a result - it arises out of all the things we've talked about today - the way you think about yourself, the things you do to keep going, the vision you have of the type of person you are and what you can contribute to your community and the world at large.
However, If you are overwhelmed right now, if you're struggling with emotional distress or poor sleep, it's hard to function and build resilience, and so if you find yourself in this situation, I urge you to please talk to someone - put your hand up and get help, use your supports. it's OK to not be OK, but what’s not OK is to try and deal with your problems on your own.
Learning how to deal with strong emotions is often about knowing what makes you feel better when you're feeling bad. Here are some ideas of what to do when it's all getting too hard:
(insert Worksheet 8)
(presenter voice-over continues)
First of all, identify and accept whatever emotion is coming up for you. There's always a reason for our emotions but often we try and push them away or tell ourselves we shouldn't be feeling this. Just allow it to be there.
The second thing is that we get frightened of strong emotions because we think they're going to overwhelm us, but they don't if we accept them. Think of it like riding a wave - there's a peak and then it fades away. But if you can distract yourself with an activity while you're waiting for it to fade, it'll be easier. There's some ideas there to get you started but you might be able to add more of your own.
Thirdly, use your senses to soothe you - pick things that you think might help and try them out. If one doesn't work, try something else. Soon you'll get really good at knowing what works for you.
Lastly, practice skills like relaxation, mindfulness or yoga. Go on an imaginary journey in your mind to a place that makes you feel relaxed and happy and safe. Imagine as many details of the scene as you can. If you're freaking out, take some slow, deep breaths and pay attention to your surroundings - describe 5 things you can see, 5 things you can hear, 5 things you can touch.
(back to presenter)
In your workbook you'll also find some tips on sleep strategies, a slow-breathing exercise for anxiety , and some self-care tips. There's also a list of contacts and resources if you feel you need some extra support.
Finally, please know that this pandemic will end, even if we don't know when. It's absolutely understandable to be anxious about the future, and there's going to be many many challenges ahead. And I know it may not feel like it, but believe me when I say your experience this year of facing and overcoming adversity is going to become one of your biggest advantages going forward - it's giving you the opportunity to develop a new mindset to learn and grow, to build those skills around dealing with disappointments, to keep moving forward, and to reassess the things that are really important to you. I think for all of us, this pandemic gives us a unique opportunity to reflect and reset our priorities. it's an opportunity to take up something new and to expand our creativity. Keep hopeful, be kind and compassionate to yourself through this most difficult of times, and have faith that if you adopt that growth mindset you will come out of this wiser, better-equipped and ready for the future.
I want to leave you with one last quote from Malcom X, the Black American human rights activist: He said,
" tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today"
So get out there and start preparing- after all, you guys are the future, and you can absolutely come back from this stronger.
Thanks so much for your time.
Download the Coming Back Stronger booklet for students
If you would like this presentation delivered by a clinical psychologist in your school contact us on Kidman.email@example.com
The parent presentation covers:
|Recognising your own stress levels||How to support your teenager|
|How to cope with the emotional ups and downs||Recognising abnormal behaviour|
|Identifying emotional reactions in your teenager||When is it time to get professional help?|
Coming Back Stronger - Parent Version
Hello everyone & welcome!
I'm Di Fitzgerald, I'm a Clinical Psychologist, and on behalf of The Kidman Centre I'd like to welcome you to this presentation for parents of HSC students, to give you some support during this most difficult year of COVID-19. I'm here because our team of psychologists who are currently working with HSC students have become aware how many of them are struggling with low motivation or keeping focused on their studies right now. We've already done a separate video for the students that includes psychological strategies to help them manage their thoughts and feelings, turn their problems into goals and increase their motivation. However, I have no doubt that you, the parents, are doing it tough too, and so we thought you might appreciate some ideas and tips about things you can do not only to support your children, but also how to look after yourselves during this once-in-a-lifetime global crisis. So grab a cup of coffee or your favourite cold drink, put your feet up and let's get started.
So here's what's on the menu today: I'm going to talk firstly about the impact COVID-19 is having on all of us, but how especially vulnerable our young people are at this time when they're facing so many life-changing events and critical decisions. I imagine many of you are worrying about how your kids are coping, and how to distinguish normal from abnormal emotional reactions they may be showing during this stressful time, so we'll talk about that too and the warning signs to watch out for that would indicate they could do with a bit of extra support and professional help.
I apologise if that all sounds like a bit of a downer. But don't worry, after that we're going to explore how to turn challenge and adversity into opportunity, how to put this year into perspective, how to model resilience for your children and who knows, along the way maybe you'll learn some new skills for yourself. And importantly, I want to encourage you to take care of yourselves, so you can take care of them. Above all, I hope this will give you the reassurance and hope that you and your children can come through this stronger and more resilient.
So, let's get the bad news out of the way first. I don't have to tell you what a major impact COVID-19 is having on every single one of us. Health fears, worries about loved ones, financial stress, job losses, lockdowns and social isolation - which for some families are leading to increased family stress and violence - all these are causing unprecedented disruptions to our way of life. It's impossible to plan for the future because we don't know what the future's going to look like next week, let alone next month or next year. Fear of the unknown is one of the biggest factors that drives human anxiety, so it's no wonder so many people are feeling stressed to the max. Now add the HSC to that, and it's not hard to see why this must feel like an emotional nuclear bomb to this year's students. What sort of things do you think your child is feeling uncertain or stressed about? You can probably think of many. In this most important year of their schooling the pandemic is wreaking chaos and confusion everywhere. What should have been a joyful time in their lives going through the rites of passage of end-of-year celebrations and trips away with mates is now shrouded in uncertainty. There are probably many emotions swirling around, not just anxiety and stress - anger about lost opportunities and plans, sadness and despair about financial security or the future in general. We're hearing from many students, and they're describing a real sense of grief about missing out on their 'normal' Year 12 experience. And as their parents, I'm sure you're also sharing that disappointment and grief, knowing it's outside your control to fix it or make it better. On a more worrying note, research from Swinburne University in Victoria is showing an alarming rise in rates of mental health problems in young people since the onset of COVID-19. 18-29 year-olds are showing high levels of pessimism about the future, almost a third of them are reporting moderate to severe levels of anxiety, and a staggering 45% are experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms.
I think one of the factors at play here is that for most young people, this is their first experience of major adversity. As adults we've probably had to deal with many challenges and setbacks in our lives, and we know that they do eventually end, we get through them and come out the other side better equipped and more resilient. But they don't have the benefit of knowing that, so it's an especially scary time for them.
So how do you distinguish between what's normal teenage behaviour and more serious signs of emotional distress? Parents often tell us, "it's like they're on an emotional rollercoaster, they're moody or irritable, they burst into tears at the drop of a hat, they shut themselves in their room and don't want to talk to us. How do I know if that's normal or not?"
The good news is that you have the advantage of knowing your child better than anyone else. You know their normal patterns and coping style, so you're in the best position to monitor how they're doing. In some ways this is one of the most important roles you have this year, alongside encouraging and supporting them. Sometimes it’s hard for our kids to put their hand up and admit they’re struggling, so it's going to be really helpful for you to be able to recognise the warning signs of more troubling changes.
Ok, so it's a given that all of us experience emotional ups and downs, sometimes several times a day. And at times of high stress we're all liable to be overcome with strong emotions, but especially so if you're a teenager or young adult. But even those strong emotions normally don't last forever, they tend to reach a peak and then they dissipate, a bit like waves on the ocean. Similarly, everyone experiences sleep difficulties or loss of appetite from time to time. But if the emotional distress and changes in behaviour last more than a week or two then there's your warning signal. What to be watchful for are significant, sustained changes that disrupt their normal functioning. If they've previously been outgoing and social and then they withdraw from those activities or they stop doing the things that would normally give them pleasure for an extended period of time, that's something to be concerned about. And of course, if they're engaging in self-harming behaviour or talking about wanting to give up, or not wanting to be around, you definitely want to be taking that seriously and getting them professional help. In an emergency, your first port of call is always the emergency department of your local hospital. If it's not an acute emergency, talk to your GP about a referral to a psychologist who specialises in adolescent mental health, or you can always call us at the Kidman Centre. Other youth mental health services like Headspace have walk-in options where you don't need an appointment and they also offer online support. If your students are still attending school, their school counsellor or a trusted teacher may be their first port of call. I just want to reiterate the message we gave to the students - It's OK to not be OK, but it's not OK to try and deal with your problems on your own.
(insert Worksheet 13) Slide 9
(Voice of presenter continues)
Coming up on your screen now should be a list of resources and where to get help that we included in the student's workbook. Feel free to pause the video if you want to make a note of any of these, and please encourage your child to access these if they need some extra support.
(cut back to presenter)
Ok that's enough of the bad stuff. Let's move on to the positive steps you can take to help your child deal with this crazy world right now. Just off the top of your head, what do you think is the most important factor that's helping your child cope at the moment? Whatever that might be, your ability as their parents to keep it in perspective for them and model good coping skills is going to be exceptionally helpful.
Keeping it in perspective involves several things. It's important not to downplay what a big deal this pandemic is and how much it's changed the world as we know it, but it's also important not to let our fears about the lack of control we have in the situation overwhelm us. If anything, I think this pandemic has stripped away that illusion of control we tend to assume. You know, most of the time we have no control about events external to us, we just assume that we do. The reality is that the only things we truly have control over are how we react to events - our thoughts, our behaviour, our emotions. Once we recognize this it gives us opportunities. The opportunity to let go of the struggle of worrying about the future - what we call catastrophizing or those 'what if' thoughts, which are usually our worst case scenario. Actually, this tendency is hard-wired into us from our evolutionary origins - the need to scan for danger and threat, but it's very easy to exaggerate these fears when faced with uncertainty. Some people are more prone to worry than others and it can be crippling. If this is you, it might be helpful to remind yourself of Erma Bombeck's saying: "Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere".
If you or your child do worry a lot, try changing your mindset - think about the best case scenario instead, see if there's another way of thinking about the problem that's more helpful and accurate. We're not denying there are real problems out there and some of your worries might be realistic right now, but how we think about that problem or concern is going to make a huge difference to how you feel and what you do.
So let me give you an example: your child is worried about their HSC marks (that's pretty realistic for most students) and is either saying or thinking something like "I'm not going to get the ATAR score I need to get into my chosen course at uni". The first thing to recognise is that thoughts are not facts - they're not truths. We need to look at real evidence to help us think more realistically. In this case we have no evidence that this is true because it's a future event that hasn't happened yet. It's a fear. Instead, what evidence is there that says this isn't true? It may be reminding them of their past performance in various subjects. Finding a more helpful and accurate way to talk to themselves about this might be saying something like " There's always a possibility that I won't do as well as I want to, but based on my past performance I think I'm going OK. There's no point worrying about something that hasn't happened yet, so all I can do is keep working hard and not let the worry derail me".
Another way of checking our thinking is to imagine you're talking to your best friend - what would you say to them that would be encouraging and compassionate? We asked the students to do this exercise in their video so here's the worksheet coming up on your screen.
(insert worksheet 2) Slide 3
If they said this to you, "I'm not going to get a good enough ATAR" you'd probably tell them something similar to what we came up with just now - "You're going to be fine, I know it's stressful but there's no point worrying about things that haven't happened yet. You've got this". This is how we should talk to ourselves, but we often resort to being critical and beating ourselves up instead. Seriously, I don't think we'd have any friends left if we spoke to them the way we speak to ourselves!
(cut back to presenter)
Practising self-compassion is especially important when we're worn out and struggling during this current COVID-19 crisis. If you can practise self-compassion, and encourage your kids to do the same, it's going to be one of the greatest gifts you can give them, and yourself. So I'd encourage you to start listening to your own self-talk, and notice how it makes you feel. Also, with our feelings, we often say to ourselves that we "shouldn't" be feeling a certain way and we try and push uncomfortable emotions away - again, be compassionate to yourself, allow yourself to have those feelings and be understanding. Encourage your children to talk about how they're feeling without judging them or trying to 'cheer them up' - sometimes just listening and understanding can make the world of difference.
And here's the other great thing - the other opportunity that opens up when we recognise what we can control, is choice - we get to choose how we react, what we do in response to any given circumstance. It allows us to ditch the victim mentality. I'm sure there've been times when you've heard your kids say "It's not fair!" or "it's not my fault". So right there you have an opportunity to tell them, "No, it's not, but you can't change the situation, so how can you work around it. What can you do instead?" Struggling with complex problems is actually a really great thing - because we know this helps to strengthen and build all those neural connections in our brain. It's vitally important to adopt this 'growth' mindset - it means that if I make a mistake or fail at something I don't beat myself up, I just recognise I'm learning new stuff and it's going to take some time but I'm going to improve my skills by doing this. This is so much more empowering than having a 'fixed' mindset that I'm either smart or I'm not, I'm lucky or I'm not. People who never have to struggle, who get everything handed to them on a plate don't develop resilience because they've never experienced failure or setbacks. Winston Churchill, who was Britain's Prime Minister in WWII said "“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I love that - it epitomises resilience to me, the idea of having the mental and emotional strength to keep persisting, to pick yourself up when you get knocked down or rejected, and yet keep going until you succeed. Helping your children adopt the 'growth' mindset and see opportunities instead of barriers and obstacles is helping them build resilience through these tough times. And often through these problems we discover an inner strength we never knew we had.
Another important aspect of keeping things in perspective is to remind yourself, and especially your HSC kids that while you want them to do their best, their health and well-being are far more important than any academic result. It’s fine to encourage them to give it their best shot, but if they don’t get the marks they want it’s not the end of the world – there are many, many pathways to success in life. You may know this from your own experience and maybe you can talk to them about how you found your pathway. For sure, COVID-19 has thrown a spanner in the works and they're going to have to think outside the square and be more persistent and determined in their efforts this year, but every single HSC student is going to be in the same boat. But, you know what, in five years' time no-one is going to care what marks they got for their HSC. Potential employers are going to be much more impressed by someone who's motivated, who knows the value of hard work, who's creative and passionate about what they do. So what matters most this year is putting in a consistent effort, keeping perspective, being flexible in keeping all their options open, and being guided in their choices by their core values.
So what's this about values? Well, in the student video we asked them to do an exercise on identifying their values, because knowing what these are, what's important to them, is critical in guiding their decisions and building daily habits that keep them motivated and moving towards their goals. They're also a key to building resilience in adversity. Values are different to goals. Goals are things you want to achieve, like landing that ideal job. Values on the other hand don't have an endpoint or outcome, rather they're the things that matter to you, what you stand for. They may be influenced by your religion or spirituality, or by your culture, but they're the things that hold us on course and guide our behaviour. For instance - if unconditional love for your family is one of your core values, then I'm sure you can think of numerous opportunities that present themselves every single day to act in accordance with that value?
I thought it would be helpful to go through this exercise with you as well, so that you know what your kids are talking about if it comes up in conversation - it may also help to talk to them about your own values and how those guided the choices you made to get to where you are today. So as we go through this exercise, take some time to think about how you'd answer these questions:
Here's the worksheet we gave them:
(insert worksheet 6) Slide 7
Imagine it's 2030, it's ten years from now, it's your birthday and all your nearest and dearest friends and family are there. Everyone's sharing stories about 2020 -
What stories would you like people to share about you? Their impressions of how you coped with this unbelievable time in our history?
Also, what stories would you want to tell about this time, about how you coped. What were you proud of, what did you learn about yourself?
In other words, what do you want to be known for?
If you'd like to work through this at your own pace, just pause the video here and come back when you're ready.
(cut back to presenter)
If you've had time to give it some thought, did you make any discoveries about what's really important to you? For many of us, these months of lockdown have given us the chance to re-evaluate our priorities, and to discover the essential things in life we value. It's completely OK for values to change over time, and it's a great way to have a family conversation about what things you'd like to do more of or less of in the future.
So talking about having discussions with your kids brings me to the next point - we know that social interactions and connectedness are vital to us as humans for our sense of well-being. As psychologists we also know there's a strong correlation between resilience in young people and how connected they feel to family and friends. Of course, on the one hand that's been especially challenging during this time of lockdown - peer relationships are so important to our young people, and even with all the online technology available to them it's not the same as being able to catch up in person with your mates. In fact, many students we talk to describe feeling isolated and lonely since this pandemic began. On the other hand, the restrictions and lockdowns have given us unique opportunities to spend more time together as a family (OK you may not necessarily see that as positive of course, and it can certainly bring its challenges with home schooling and working from home) but again, try and find the positive in it - it's been so heartening to see those tik tok videos of dads dancing with their kids, and families having fun together in lockdown. Maybe if you have been working from home it's given you the opportunity to spend more time with your kids and build those bonds. Feeling valued, listened to, and safe means that your kids are more likely to come to you for help when they're in trouble than engage in risky or harmful behaviour. And if you think about it, this is true for all of us – the more connected we feel to someone else, the more respect we have for them, the less likely we are to do something that would disappoint them or hurt them.
Ok So how do we foster this connectedness and respect? It begins with communication. As I mentioned earlier, we often unintentionally create blocks in communicating with our kids by shutting down conversations with unsolicited advice, or dismissing their feelings. Communication requires listening, really listening to the other person. You don't learn anything by talking, but you can learn a lot by listening, not just to the words but to the emotion behind the words. And then checking in with the other person that you've received the message correctly.
This is what we call Active or reflective listening and it goes something like this:
Your child comes home in a bad mood and throws their school bag in the corner.
“I've had a crap day. I've got so many assignments to do, how do they expect me to get it all done?”
(now at this point you might be tempted to mention how much time they're wasting on insta or Tik Tok, but don't go there)
Instead pick up on the emotion - “it sounds like you’re really stressed out and frustrated right now”.
“Duh, of course I’m stressed – wouldn’t you be?”
“yes, I would, I'm so sorry it’s so tough for you right now".
(Notice i'm not giving any solutions or advice, because I want to keep the conversation going.)
At some point you might want to ask "Have you had any thoughts about how to handle this?” - again, encouraging them to come up with solutions. If they can't think of any, maybe you can offer to brainstorm some ideas with them later when they've had some time to calm down.
What about if your child just doesn't want to talk about their problems or worries? I have two sons, who I'm pleased to say are now well past the teenage years, but during those final years of school they were like chalk and cheese - one would tell me everything, including things I'd rather not know, and the other kept his cards pretty close to his chest. I found that just letting him know I was there and available if he wanted to talk was a good way to take the pressure off, or sometimes it's helpful to find a less confronting way to have a conversation. When I think back, I reckon some of our best chats where when we were in the car on the way to school!
So try out some of those ideas if you think they'd be helpful for you.
The other thing we’re not very good at as parents is praising our kids or telling them how proud we are of them when they’re putting in the effort and doing the right thing. Mostly we default to paying attention to the things they’re not doing, or not doing well enough. Sometimes we try threatening them to scare them into action “If you don’t get a good mark you won’t get into uni or you won’t get a decent job”. But this doesn't actually help - we know from research that threats don't have much impact on changing people's behaviour - but rewards and feedback do. Noticing what they're doing right, encouraging them when the going gets tough can help them keep going. So encourage the attitude that all problems are solvable. Use positive reinforcement and specific feedback: "it’s great you stuck to your study timetable even though you were tired and had a long day." And if academic subjects aren't their strength, reinforce their abilities in other areas. Everyone has strengths and unique qualities, doing well at school is not the be-all and end-all of life. Your job as their parents, always, but especially this year, is to be their cheerleading squad. You can't play the game for them, but you surely can stand on the sidelines and barrack for them.
Another vital skill in managing tough times is practicing good self-care. The things we do to nourish our emotional, physical and mental health needs. I'm sure most of you are very familiar with the concept, and you may be able to reel off the theory of getting good sleep, regular exercise, healthy eating, doing pleasurable activities, but we're often not so good at putting these into practice in our daily lives are we? This is where you have another opportunity not only to look after yourselves through this year, but also set a great example for your kids and encourage them to do the same. In the students workbook we gave them several pages on ideas for self-care including sleep strategies, healthy eating and exercise. By the way, did you know that teenagers need at least 9-10 hours of sleep a night? I can guarantee that most of your year 12 students won't be close to achieving this, but some of the things you can do to encourage better sleep habits are to remind them to have a wind-down time before bed, maybe have a warm drink, try and set a regular bedtime, and above all please encourage them to leave their phone on the kitchen bench.
You know, another idea is that maybe as a family you can plan and cook some tasty and nutritious meals together, and talk about those healthy choices you can make every day to feed your brain and body the good stuff.
Just as important though, is looking after yourselves through all this. As parents we give so much of ourselves that we can often end up feeling depleted. Think of yourself like a bank account - you can't keep giving out without putting in regular deposits. It's hard to be resilient if you're sleep deprived, you're more likely to over-react to small things so make sure you find ways to get enough sleep - even if that means taking a nap during the day if that's at all possible. Check in regularly with yourself and try and reduce the things you know make you feel worse in the long-run, things like reliance on alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food, or watching endless newsfeeds about the coronavirus on TV. Instead make the choice to do things that make you feel good and feed your soul - take yourself off the grid, read, listen to music or learn to play a musical instrument, dance, go for a bushwalk or a walk on the beach. Perhaps start a gratitude journal and make a note of all the things you're grateful for on a daily basis. Above all, give yourself permission to take time out for you without feeling guilty. It's much more important to feel refreshed and nourished than to have a spotless house or answer every email in your inbox.
Another quality associated with resilience is being able to stay calm and composed. It's so beneficial knowing how to calm yourself down when you're facing tough times but it's not easy to do. There's a huge number of youtube videos and online courses to guide you in learning skills such as breathing techniques, or mindfulness, meditation or yoga, which are all incredibly helpful.
If you're struggling with anxiety, you could try the "Apple" technique - this is an acronym for
Acknowledge: recognise the worry is there
Pause - take a moment to stop and slow your breathing down
Pull back - get some perspective and remind yourself this is a thought or a story you tell yourself, it's not a fact, it's not a truth.
Let go - observe the thought or worry but then release it, imagine it's a leaf floating down a stream, or a cloud passing overhead and finally
Explore - focus your attention on the here and now, on your surroundings, what you can hear, see, and touch around you. Then shift back to the activity you were doing before or direct your attention to something new.
The great thing is that if you benefit from any of these ideas, it's likely your kids will notice the change in you and there's another opportunity to share what you've found helpful. You never know, it may just encourage them to give it a go too!
So to sum up - Yes, this is an extraordinarily difficult time and we're all likely to be challenged in ways we never thought possible, probably for some time to come yet. Your young people, on the cusp of adulthood, are being challenged the most. The best thing you can do as parents is to support and encourage them, have faith in them and give them hope - that these new skills they're learning, to be flexible, innovative, persistent and above all resilient in the face of adversity is going to give them an advantage that previous and future generations won't have - they'll have a deeper understanding of life, perhaps more compassion for others and more appreciation of the importance of community. They'll also have the knowledge that whatever they set their mind to, they can achieve. Whatever life throws at them, they'll be equipped to get through it. I have no doubt they're going to make you very proud in the coming months and years ahead, and when you look back I'm sure you're also going to be proud of how you helped your family come through this stronger.
So take care of yourselves and your loved ones, stay safe, be well, and thank you for listening.
The Kidman Centre, UTS is a mental health treatment and research centre for children, adolescents and young adults aged 5-25 years.