Why your teen’s mental health is more important than their grades

3 min read

Jonathon Nicholas, CEO of Reachout an online mental health organisation for young people, advises parents about future-proofing their teens, and teaching them to recognise the difference between good and bad stress.

It’s easy to forget as the years roll on and your teens are suddenly facing exams, just how stressful this rite of passage can be. 

It’s common for teens to be led to believe the marks they score in their Year 12 exams will define your life path forever.

While universities do judge eligibility for some courses based on their ‘ATAR’ for the first round offers, many counsellors are quick to point out that admission scores aren’t everything.

Jonathon reminds us that exam results are a point in time, and while young people often focus on tertiary admission results, every parent knows the grades they got at 17 do not continue to define them at 25, 35 or 45.

“The reason we focus on grades is because every parent wants their kid to be happy and do well,” observes Jonathon. “While exams are an important part of their journey, they’re certainly not the end point.

“The proof that exams are important but not critical is simply in your own experience. If you think back to when you were 17 or 18, those exams felt like defining moments, but they didn’t define every step you’ve had in your career, or where you are now in its entirety.”

There is life after Year 12

Reachout ran a campaign called There’s life after Year 12 exams featuring short and encouraging videos from well-known Australians including Malcolm Turnbull (wasn’t keen on maths or economics, preferred ancient and modern history), Penny Wong (more interested in dance and the arts than politics or history) and Adam Spencer (got the marks to study law, hated it, switched to maths, and performed stand-up comedy after hours). The videos share a hopeful message that how you define success when you are 17 definitely evolves, sometimes surprisingly fast.

“The biggest challenge for any young person is a sense of being valued,” states Jonathon. “It’s important they feel valued by other people as well as by themselves. That can be impacted by a whole range of issues: ‘how well I do in my exams’, ‘whether or not I think my parents like me’, ‘whether my friends like me’.

“Ultimately, if your kid feels valued by the people around them – and if they value others – chances are they’ll do pretty well in the long run.”

Handling study and exam stress

Jonathon recommends talking about the future with our teens as often as possible, framing it as a range of options.

“Talk with your teens about the reason to work hard towards exams - not because the mark will define you but, because the better you do, the more options you will have in your future,” he explains.

It’s also important to talk about the discipline of exams we don’t have a choice about: having a deadline, or having to turn up to something.

Jonathon says deadline stress can be good, and suggests explaining it like this.

Stress is your body’s way of getting you focused

“Some stress can be good. If you’re feeling stressed because you’ve got to finish an important task in an hour, your mind will become focused. Also, that task finishes in an hour. It’s time-limited and then it’ll be done. The pressure will end. Exams are like that – you can literally cross days off on the calendar and know that at the other end you’ll have a holiday and a good result,” says Jonathon.

Stress without a deadline is bad, so make time to organise your goals

“One of the hardest things as a teenager is getting organised and becoming disciplined about your goals. We can manage stress better if we break down our week and days into manageable increments to get a sense of progress. By ticking things off, we’re not focussing on a distant goal, we’re focusing on successes that can happen literally hourly and daily. Organising your goals and ticking them off gives you a real sense of achievement – and it’s an important skill you can use the rest of your life.”

Find something to love every day

We can also talk with our teens about what it is they love. It helps focus attention on what gets them out of the bed in the morning. And it gives them experiences and feelings to look forward to.

“When we focus on the motivation, not the action, it helps,” remarks Jonathan. “When we focus on doing what we love, something we want to get better at, we can find ways to incorporate that into our life regularly.”

Most of us have already experienced major life changes we hadn’t dreamed of as teenagers. And sometimes we’ve let certain dreams go.

“If you can make money from something you love, great, but most people do other things,” concludes Jonathon. “It might mean you’re a great banker and you have a really bad band on Saturdays. That’s OK. Find ways to incorporate those things into your life that help you feel good, because there’s less pressure when you do something just for the love of it.”

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This information is current as at 16/12/2016.

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