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"Practice what you preach." An open letter to parents of teens, from a former teacher.

One of the greatest privileges of being a high school teacher was the deep and meaningful conversations I had with hundreds of teenagers.

I may have been lucky that as a 'young' teacher, I was still relatable enough for my students to open their hearts to me; also, I suspect that they sensed I cared deeply about them.

Caring deeply about the wellbeing and future of students inevitably leads to pondering the shortcomings and room for improvement within our education system, our society and our homes. 

Seeing an increase in cyber bullying and teenage anxiety at the same time as a decrease in literacy and numeracy benchmarks begs the question: what has gone wrong?

 And more importantly: what is the solution?

Watch: A letter to my teenage self. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

Teenagers face a very different world to the one many of us grew up in. 

Unfortunately, the classroom has not changed to reflect that, and I’m often left to wonder if we are sending tamed animals out into the wild with absolutely no skills for survival in a completely changed environment.

I can only imagine this makes the already difficult task of parenting teenagers even more difficult.

On top of subject selection, assessments, assignments, homework, school camps and co-curricular, parents now have to also wrap their heads around social media, cyber-bullying, heightened levels of anxiety, and the incessant need to keep up with pervasive and impossible targets of perfection.

I have had countless conversations with concerned parents who simply don’t know how to navigate such uncharted territory, along with supporting the teens in the thick of it.

I have seen teens who thrive, and teens who are struggling to survive. From this, I’ve noticed some trends, and I’ve formed some hypotheses.

I am by no means a parent, and in my experience, the best strategy is completely dependent on your family, your individual child, your individual circumstances.

As we know, one size does not fit all. 

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In saying so, here are some suggestions to take and see if they fit. 

Give them the gift of boredom… without a damn phone.

Do you know how I discovered a love for writing and playing music? On my school holidays, I used to get SO bored. Boredom led to reading books, which led to a fascination with language and writing. Boredom also led to teaching myself piano. To teaching myself guitar. 

Boredom is a beautiful, beautiful thing. It leads to curiosity. Today, it leads to scrolling - to stifling curiosity. It is concerning to me how many teens cannot handle a minute in boredom. In boredom, they find their natural interests and passions, which is then something to explore and cultivate. A natural interest in sport? In dancing and music? Good. Follow that - weekends will now be spent at footy or dance classes - not exclusively inside of Snapchat.

Give them opportunities to screw up. A lot. And often.

In my experience, the less exposure a teenager has had to adversity, the more fragile they become. I understand that a parent's natural instinct is to protect - from pain, from suffering, from embarrassment, from bullies, from all the scary things. 

However, this takes away tremendous opportunities to build self-confidence, to learn, to grow, to know that 'I can handle anything.' Resilience is the single most important trait we can develop in teenagers but they cannot develop this without exposure to difficult things.

This means they NEED opportunities to 'fail', to make mistakes, to get things wrong, to be embarrassed, to be hurt, to be cut from the team, to sit in their pain and learn from it. We learn through experience. While you are still there to provide the crash barriers and give them a safe landing, give them experiences which teach them they are strong. They will learn now - or later, when you aren’t there to cushion the fall.

Grades don’t matter.

Look, I am an educator and I value education, learning and teaching blah blah blah. BUT. Can I truly tell my students that their grades are the sole determinant of their future? Of their wellbeing or future success? Hell no. I will be the first person to tell any student: do your best, make yourself proud and keep your options open - but also - chill the heck out.

I’ve seen it all. Watching my students become adults and stay in touch years after high school has only reinforced this belief. 

Some did poorly at school and thrived after. Some were bright sparks at school and found life outside the school gates quite challenging. Some became influencers, some became physiotherapists, some became builders. There are now options, careers, pathways and opportunities that never existed decades ago and 'good grades' are not the one-way ticket to a successful life. 

Ask Elon Musk, Oprah, and Mark Zuckerberg. In my experience, the students who thrive after school are the ones who developed the aforementioned: resilience.

Listen: On this episode of No Filter, Mia Freedman speaks to former teacher Gabbie Stroud about what she really wants parents to know. Post continues after audio.

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If they’re disengaged, they’re probably just bored. Don’t stress. 

The most common question I was asked inside the classroom was: "Miss, how is this going to help me in life?"

Even though I tried to spin it into some skill that could come in handy - the lie detector test determined, that was in fact a lie. My grandparents often marvel at how much our world has changed in the past few decades. I tell them to walk into a classroom - they’d probably feel quite at home; the content is almost identical - just add a few fancy laptops and iPads. 

Despite the unprecedented changes in society, we cling to outdated and irrelevant curriculum which is not at all relevant in teens' lives. And they know it. The first rule in educational psychology - help students to see how the information is relevant and useful so they don’t switch off. Well. Many teenagers have switched off. 

Time after time, I found that 'disengaged' students were not really disengaged - they were bored. And I can barely blame them. 

Social media and screen time should be limited. For all of us.

I cannot tell you how many of my clients see their mental health regress over the summer school holiday break. 

When I ask 'what have you been up to?' - the answer is often not much. This isn’t being sulky or non-conversational. They have been in their rooms scrolling, attached to their phone - literally doing 'not much.' They tell me they notice they start feeling more anxious, and less confident. 

Some of them, girls in particular, tell me they are relieved when their phone gets taken off them. Several of my clients have been put on a detox challenge and report back feeling lighter. 

Look. I love social media, I love technology and I love the opportunities it gives teenagers. 

BUT. There is always a point where a sweet become a poison. A piece of chocolate is nice. Five blocks is toxic and harmful. 

The same goes for social media and screens. If you have given your teenager a phone, please give it to them with education, a close eye and some limitations.

Even better - practice what you preach.

Miss Mindset (Breanna May) is a writer, motivational speaker and mindset coach with a background in law and high school education. When she's not diving into all things psychology, personal development and philosophy, you will find her in the gym, or at the pub – because, balance. Follow her on  Instagram and Facebook.

Confused about Snapchat? Unsure about TikTok? Meet the Safe on Social Toolkit: the digital ‘survival kit’ designed to arm parents with everything they need to know about keeping their kids safe online. Find out more now at www.safeonsocialtoolkit.com.

Feature Image: Instagram @MissMindset_ / Mamamia.

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