Saturday, 6 August 2016

Should you be automatically responding to your child's 'call for help' via text during the school day? How could this affect their future resilience?

Last year I posted a Facebook entry about an incident at a school I had recently visited ... it went something like this: 

Just have to share ... Went to a school recently and met with the Year 10 Co-ordinator who appeared very flustered. It was obvious that something had upset her. When I asked her if she was okay she told me about a phone call she had just received and it totally floored me ... Apparently she had given one of her Year 10s a detention and within minutes the girl's mother called her to request if she could do the detention for her!!! Can you believe it? What is wrong with some of these parents?

At the time I was completely unaware of how often this actually goes on in schools. Of course, this is an extreme case, a mother actually asking to do her daughter's detention for her is highly unusual (although according to principals and teachers across the country it certainly happens more than you would think!), but parents responding to their child's calls for help via text during the school day is not.

From what I can tell, it goes something like this ... something happens in the classroom (e.g., a teacher tells a student off, a child gets sent to the principal's office for a punishment, there is some sort of argument or disagreement between two or more students, they get a bad mark on an assignment), the child then manages to send a text through to their parent briefly describing the incident from their perspective, and then the parent immediately responds to the 'call for help' by either calling the school or sending an email to the teacher involved, usually demanding that something be done to rectify the situation or ask that no further action be taken until they are present. A school recently did a quick audit of how much time their teachers spent responding to these sort of incidents, either by email, face-to-face meetings or phone calls, and they estimated that it was averaging almost 5 hours a week! Imagine adding 5 hours to anybody's workload - it's frightening!

But even more importantly, what long-term impact could this 'instant parent response' to a 'call for help' via text have on the child? As far as I'm aware there is no research in this specific area (i.e., responding to text messages) as yet but there is certainly growing evidence that this type of parenting (often referred to as 'helicopter parenting', or the even more extreme 'lawnmower parenting') certainly has a negative impact on a child's future 'resilience'.  

Let's make it very clear - there is no way to 'inoculate' your child against potential alcohol and other drug use. As much as we would like to think there is some 'silver bullet' to prevent our young people from taking part in risky behaviour, the reality is that adolescents are almost 'wired' to not think through consequences, act impulsively and respond with 'gut reactions'. We can give them all the information about risks, provide them with strategies to look after themselves and their friends but realistically the best thing we can do to try to keep them as safe as possible through adolescence and beyond is to build their 'resilience'.

One of the most often quoted definitions of resilience is " … the inherent and nurtured capacity of individuals to deal with life's stresses in ways that enable them to lead healthy and fulfilled lives." Some young people are naturally resilient and are able to handle almost anything that life throws at them, whilst others need some help. Over the past 20 years or so, schools have dramatically changed their practices, with most now having specific structures in place designed to build students' resilience - most of them embedded in the pastoral care and well-being areas. The wonderful Andrew Fuller (who has been working with school communities for many years promoting these practices) describes resilience as "the fine art of being able to bungee jump through life. The pitfalls are still there but is as if you have an elasticized rope around your middle that helps you to bounce back from hard times."

At many of the schools I visit, particularly those I have had a long working relationship with, I meet unbelievably committed people who work incredibly hard to ensure that each and every one of the students at their school feels valued and special and that no-one 'slips through the cracks'. We know that if children are supported in that way and that they feel 'connected', they build resilience. It's not going to solve all their problems but it's sure going to help! So when I hear of parents who are doing this kind of thing it just makes my blood boil!

Young people are going to have to face a range of problems at school and elsewhere, particularly during adolescence. They're not always going to get on with all their teachers, many will do the wrong thing and get punished and they're going to have fights and disagreements with friends and other students. We all had the same issues and, you know what, we had to deal with them! We didn't have a mobile on hand to send a quick text to our parents to say "come and fix my problem for me" - we had to work our way through whatever was happening and, even though it didn't feel like it at the time, we most probably learned a valuable lesson as a result. Parents who almost automatically respond to their child's text messages, attempting to solve the problems they're experiencing at school for them are running the very real risk of damaging their future resilience.

Kids need to struggle occasionally, they need to experience disappointment and failure and they need to learn how to respond appropriately when things don't go their way. If they have a parent that intervenes every time something goes wrong how are they ever going to learn how to deal with the problems that will inevitably occur later in life? How resilient can they possibly be?

So am I saying you should ignore your child's calls for help? Of course not, if your teen is struggling and things are not going well at school, whether it be with a teacher or another student, you need to be supportive and act accordingly. But should you be responding immediately to a text message? Absolutely not! Give them the opportunity to deal with the problem themselves. Although this can be difficult, keep remembering that we survived our teens without a mobile phone and a direct 'lifeline' to our parents. They will too ...

If you do get a text (and realistically you should be educating your child that sending a text from school should only ever be done in an emergency - clearly defining what an emergency is - and if you're regularly texting your son or daughter at school, stop that immediately, that's just tragic!), the best thing to do (if it is not an emergency) is to text them back with something like "We will deal with this when you get home". This practice of responding to a text by immediately contacting the school or teacher without getting the full story, giving the child an opportunity to deal with the problem themselves or, in many cases, simply allowing some time for things to calm down and the child to think it through, is at the very least ridiculous, but at worst incredibly dangerous ...

US research examining the impact of 'helicopter parenting' (and let me assure you, responding to text messages in this way is actually far more likely to be classified as 'lawnmower parenting', i.e., not simply 'hovering' over a child but rather, trying to remove all barriers and problems before they even encounter them) suggests that once they leave school, young people parented in this way are far more likely to drop-out of university and find it difficult to function effectively in the workforce. Put simply, they don't know how to 'stand on their own two feet' and deal with the real world.

A parent's natural instinct is to protect their child and a 'call for help' from school via a text message is going to be difficult to ignore, but we now know that the most important thing we can do to keep our kids as safe as possible is to build their resilience. Making sure they have the ability to 'bounce back' from whatever problem they may face in the future is vital. Parents who try to 'fix' each and every issue their child experiences at school instead of letting them try to deal with it themselves are likely to have an adverse effect on this resilience. Of course you support them, and if you need to get involved, throw yourself in feet first, but automatically responding to a text is not the way to go ...

If you have been doing this, it's going to take a little time to wean both you and your teen off the 'mobile lifeline' and it's not going to be easy. Sit down and have a discussion with you son or daughter about texting you during a school day (i.e., it should only be done in an emergency, and establish what constitutes an emergency? Forgetting your lunch isn't!). Then talk through how you plan to deal with any issues they may experience during the school day, making sure that they understand that you're not going to ignore them, it's just better that before you act, they're discussed face-to-face with them so you can get all the facts, and your response is not just based on a few words sent in a text message. It's going to be hard, particularly for you 'lawnmower parents' out there (and you know who you are!) but next time your mobile buzzes, check the text, and if it's not an emergency (and it most probably won't be!), take a breath and wait until you have that face-to-face discussion with your child before sending off an email or making that call to the school or teacher! I can assure you that it'll be well worth it in the long-term ...

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