Agnes asks: "My 14 year-old son and I went for an evening stroll recently, and I seized the opportunity to talk about how important the coming two years were for him academically. I outlined the importance of devising revision techniques, and to make it his ultimate goal to pass his GCSEs. Without getting too heavy, I felt that I gave him some great motivational and encouraging words of wisdom, that he may take on board with him into the new school year. I also made sure to let him know he's not alone, and that we would be there every step of the way to support him.
How wrong could I be? He said that he didn't want to talk about it, as it was adding more pressure onto him to succeed, and he would rather we didn't talk about it! So my question is this: is the motivation and encouragement that we give to others actually just adding more pressure onto that person to succeed?"
Karan's advice: To begin with Agnes, I think it may be useful to reframe our thinking towards the word "pressure". By habitually thinking of pressure as something only ever awful and negative, we create additional discomfort, unhappiness and stress for ourselves - and unnecessarily so. If we can change our thinking, we can change our reality, because pressure can be good. Pressure can create powerful change and positive outcomes, but like most things in life, it all depends on our personal outlook and individual perceptions. A Positive Mental Attitude slays most (often illusory) dragons. We must therefore decide to first master, and then retrain our brains to embrace pressure; to harness it, and use it as a fuel to propel us forward. No pressure, no diamonds.
Your son is 14 years-old and has therefore been thrown head first into puberty, and probably doesn't know which way is up, hormonally speaking, most of the time. This is an intensely confounding and uncomfortable transition your son is currently growing through, and now he must also manage the pressure of GCSEs?! It hardly seems fair, I grant you. It is a lot to ask teenagers to go through, but it's a rite of passage and it's essential for his ongoing development. Your son's successful management of these numerous pressure points, will be the making of him. Now is the time for your son to begin his journey towards adulthood; it's why Mother Nature has unleashed all of those hormones...the time is ripe and the time is now
School is preparing your son for the working world, of which pressure is an integral part. We (i.e.: parents via errands and chores, school via exams and society via incremental new freedoms etc) begin to apply pressure and added responsibility at around this time in your son's life, because he cannot be cosseted (as he once was as a baby/toddler/child) forever. As parents we must develop our children's independence from Day One, and for this there must always be growth: physical, mental, emotional, even spiritual. Where there is growth there is an increase of pressure and discomfort to facilitate that growth. Just think of your own pregnancy, and your son's birth, to solidify this point. For your son to transition from in utero, required the process of a (hellishly excrutiatingly) painful birth. Then there was the learning to walk and falling over stage, the climbing up everything and falling off stage, the grazed knees, the inevitable first heartbreak etc - all painful but absolutely essential learning stages. Learning to manage pressure is just another uncomfortable and painful, but absolutely essential, learning stage.
Realistically, your son could join the armed services and fight a war for his country in two years. In three years, he will be legally allowed to drive a car. In four years, he will be entitled to vote for the Government of his choice. Physically, your son is capable of becoming a father right now, so it's perhaps not unreasonable to expect him to start learning how to manage pressure successfully. As your son transitions through his teenage years, he will demand more freedom, responsibility and autonomy; he will expect to be treated more like an adult than a child - and reasonably so. But as I said before, pressure is an integral part of adulthood and the working world, and he can't have one without the other. To accept the privileges of adulthood is to accept the responsibilities and subsequent pressures thereof. Of course there are notable exceptions to this, but we're talking about your son here, so these are pertinent points.
The trick here is finding the correct balance, and to create a safe space which allows for learning and error. When your son was a year old and starting to toddle, you didn't send him round to the shops for milk by himself. Instead you provided him with a safe (and soft!) environment to crash into sofas and repeatedly fall over. When your son turns 17, you can't just hand him a set of car keys and tell him to head for the motorway - the results would be catastrophic. So your son will be taught and trained to drive, and will have to qualify for a driving licence. Well let's take the same approach with the pressure he is now starting to experience, in respect of his GCSEs.
Let's look again at the wording of your question: "I outlined the importance of devising revision techniques, and to make it his ultimate goal to pass his GCSEs. Without getting too heavy, I felt that I gave him some great motivational and encouraging words of wisdom, that he may take on board with him into the new school year. I also made sure to let him know he's not alone, and that we would be there every step of the way to support him". Whilst I acknowledge your son told you he didn't want to talk about it, because it was only adding to the pressure he was feeling, you are already creating a safe and soft environment for him, whilst he learns to drive these new senses of pressure he's experiencing. When learning to walk and repeatedly falling over, when learning new subjects at school and making mistakes, your son has successfully managed and overcome frustrations, set backs and varying degrees of hardship already. He will conquer this transition phase too, with your ongoing love and support.
Your son may say he wants you to step back and not talk about exams, but that doesn't mean you should stop creating a safe environment for him to learn to manage the pressure within. What you can do is to hold space for him. If you're unfamiliar with the concept of holding space, let me give you a brief description.
To hold space for someone you must first tune into, and become mindful of, your own thoughts; you must let go of any judgments (towards yourself and others), and not allow your ego to run the show. You must then open your heart entirely and allow the other person to go through what they must go through, in order to grow. There will be bumps and upsets along the way, but rather than taking these personally - or judging yourself to be wrong somehow - accept this is all part of the process. We learn from mistakes and pain after all. Let's go back to the learning to walk example. When your son was learning to walk, you no doubt secured him in a playpen, or surrounded him with cushions, so he could toddle and fall safely. He was then free to toddle wherever he pleased, within this safe space, and duly fell over multiple times - before standing up and trying again. Yes, he probably experienced frustration because his progress wasn't quick enough, but he mastered it all in his own time, following numerous tests to his perseverance. There was an internal pressure to master this new life skill, and he failed right up until he mastered it, which is the pattern of life.
Now I'd like you to imagine cupping your hands around an imaginary cup of hot soup on a cold day. Now push your hands slightly further apart, but still formed in the cupped position. Can you imagine looking down and observing a tiny representation of your son - living his life in his world - in the centre of your hands, whilst you hold space for him to move and grow freely? This doesn't prevent him falling down and making mistakes (because mistakes are essential), but it does mean he doesn't come to any serious harm, whilst he grows stronger, develops and enhances himself. You are his protector, his guardian, the overseer of his safety and well-being, the insurer of his development. You are his parent, and he doesn't have to know what you're doing, but he will feel it - consciously or otherwise. Often children don't realise what their parents have done for them, until they become parents themselves, but that's another blog for another day.
You can ostensibly give your son what he wants (i.e.: not talking about his exams), whilst still holding space for him and tacitly supporting his endeavours. I have witnessed too many people allowing their ego's desire to be seen doing the right thing/being the best parent in the world etc, at the expense of what is truly best for the other person. It is better when the ego is removed and genuine love and kindness become the primary drivers behind actions. When you are motivated to do what is right for another person, over seeking hollow third party validation for what is essentially an empty gesture, you are being driven by love not ego. Sod what it looks like to others, hold space for your son and give him what he needs to breathe and grow, safely.
Your son's GCSEs warrant a degree of pressure and seriousness, because they lead to what comes next in his life; they are important and this is a rite of passage. It would be parental malpractice to let this exam issue waft past him with a "whatever" and no pressure attitude, because they are a big deal. What follows next, be it a further education, an apprenticeship, a job, the military, it is life and life is pressure. To earn a living, to afford food, shelter and a quality of life is a serious responsibility that only adults can handle, so we must teach our teenagers how to handle this responsibility - gradually and within a safe environment, to allow for learning and errors.
The next couple of years will not necessarily be the most fun your son has ever encountered, as he learns, revises for and eventually sits his exams. Your son will only experience pressure if he truly cares about his performance and results, so you can take a lot of heart from the fact he's struggling at the moment. No pressure, no diamonds. Have faith that, along with you holding space for him, your son will experience bumps and upsets along the way, but he will ultimately master the task in hand, as he always has. Supported by parents who go for evening strolls, who communicate, love and care so openly and freely, your son is already growing in a safe space. It is clear that you are already holding space, so just keep up the good work, you're doing great!
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