In my work with teenagers and young adults over the years, I have noticed their increasing anxiety over studies and even more, anecdotally, the anxiety of their parents and teachers about learning outcomes.
I believe this can be largely attributed to the fact that we are not teaching teens to be independent and self-motivated learners.
Whose Homework Is It Anyway?!
So much so, that an acquaintance took two days’ sick leave from work to help her Year 12 son film his history class presentation – organising hire of equipment, doing the set up and giving advice on how to make it into an outstanding presentation. This was not one-off behaviour, either. From his early years, this young man had come to expect close parental involvement in all his homework and projects. I wonder if he was really clear about who he was doing it for? Himself – or his parents?
Friends working at universities are staggered at the increasing incidence of young men and women, armed with Mum or Dad by their side, marching up to the Dean’s office to complain about assignment marks because “they worked so hard and deserved a much higher result”. They have experienced a parent coming as the spokesperson for their young adult to complain about one or more members of the group he or she has to work with, and requesting changes because personalities don’t match, or other members of the group are not doing their fair share. Or a parent, with their young man or woman in tow, may come into student services in righteous rage that they missed out on a student exchange or that their accommodation is not satisfactory.
Such over-involved behaviour is age–inappropriate to start with, and can foster major anxiety and low self-confidence in such hot-housed offspring. How can these individuals function in their future work settings, or even go to job interviews after graduation without a parent coming too, to shore up their “child’s” confidence?
At a recent workshop I attended, presented by Dr. Larry Weiss, head of Pearson’s International Research team for developing cognitive and learning assessments, he quoted research that shows that between 6-11 years of age, children of parents who organise their child’s homework time and check that it has been done, do better in school.
After that age, however, it makes no difference to learning outcomes. Hovering over homework is more likely to foster anxiety, or too much reliance on parental involvement to get the work done.
Teaching Teens to be Self-Motivated Learners
What does make a difference is parents listening to their child talk about their school day, listening without judgment, not focusing on marks instead of effort, or making unfavourable comparisons with other students. Being interested in all aspects of their teenager’s school day, affirming persistence and hard work is the best way to encourage motivation and pleasure in accomplishment.
Exhibiting anxiety about a failure or less than stellar outcomes, and then trying to take over or compensate for the challenges a teenager may face, simply undermines the quality essential for success in later life: self-efficacy. This is the belief that one is competent in dealing with challenges, and that persistence in the face of difficulties usually pays off. If it doesn’t, a self-efficacious person is sure they can work out how to respond to the problem differently and learn from mistakes.
Parents must be able to step back and give their children (especially older ones) the chance to come up with ways to solve problems, which may of course, be asking for help from the right sources. Students can become unmotivated if they start to believe academic achievement is their parent’s ambition and therefore a legitimate parental responsibility to ensure the student’s academic success, negating the need for much effort on the child’s part.
As a consequence, when the young adult arrives at university, perhaps far from home – where independent self-study and task completion is a given expectation – they may feel helpless and scared without a parent to organize their time, oversee their assignments or challenge teachers about the results.
Time for Parents to Take a Step Back!
These “failure to launch” kids (and I’m not talking about living at home) have the potential to legitimise the “age of anxiety” label, as more of these people enter a workforce with employers who are concerned mostly with making a profit and do not spend much time on training and “hand-holding”. The research shows a strong link between helicopter or snow-mobile (smoothing all obstacles in their child’s way) parenting, and anxiety and depression in youth.
I know that I am seeing young adults in their late 20’s and 30’s, with high anxiety about their jobs because they feel they have been stranded in a position where no-one is sitting beside them to teach them about every aspect of their job. Of course, proper training in the long run is proven to maximise workforce outcomes, but the reality is that in professions requiring tertiary education and training, entry level individuals are more often than not expected to have become independent learners and self-motivated to be so, long before they arrive on the company doorstep.
So parents, step back, slowly and steadily teach and encourage your children from a young age to feel confident in their approach to school work, to learn that hard work (theirs, not Mum and Dad’s) pays off, not necessarily in marks, but by taking pride in doing their best and improving on past performance. Teach that it is okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them and don’t give up.
Julie Lythott Haimes, a retired Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University, saw the phenomenon first hand, of parents increasingly overseeing every aspect of the study path, results and career plans of their offspring. So concerned did she become, that she researched and wrote “How To Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid For Success”. That’s not about raising them as an adult, but preparing them to be one!
Author: Susanne Gilmour, BA, Dip Soc. Science, Grad Dip Psychology.
Susanne Gilmour is a Brisbane Psychologist with over 20 years’ experience working with children, adolescents and their families, in addition to a background in management.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Susanne Gilmour, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.