Making Big Decisions ~ Parents and Young People

Young people chatting, 123RF stock photo.



 Parents / Guardians / Carers (PGCs) sometimes need a hand in approaching discussions with their children or teenagers.

  Here are a few ideas.



The following are the topics covered ~









Summer 2019 




Iseult Catherine O'Brien

Montessori Teacher & Supervisor  |  Volunteer Tutor with Second Level Students  |   

A Member of The Tutors' Association








Ideas on How to Approach Making Decisions through Discussion and Agreement



A number of years ago, a friend realised that her daughter was not doing well in her secondary school.  The student was 14 years of age, and all her State exams were ahead of her.  I had heard from the student that no-one in the class could understand their English teach because of her accent.


I suggested my friend should try to move her daughter to another, nearby, school.  It was widely considered the current school was going through a bad patch.  In the end, no change was made as the student insisted it was more important to her to be with her friends than any other consideration.  My own friend regretted later  not pushing harder for a change, and the student didn't do as well in her exams as her abilities would suggest.


The following article is a good template on which to start discussions on anthing from a school, to sports, extra curricula activities, and how much free time a young person has to spend with friends.



Our 12-year-old is torn about which school to go to

She has become really upset and overwhelmed.

Hormones are not helping matters


Sun, Jun 9, 2019, The Irish Times.

John Sharry


Should we just make the decision for her and tell her if it doesn’t work out she can lay all the blame on us?


Question:    We looked at two nearby schools for our 12-year-old daughter for secondary school.  She really liked the first and would have chosen it but unfortunately we did not get a place, although some of her friends did. She happily went with the second choice, where friends are also going, including one close friend.  We’ve just got a late offer for the first-choice school, which would strongly be mine and her father’s choice.  We think it is a better fit for her and she would like it and be happy there.  When we got the offer we took the approach of saying to her that this had happened and we would all think about it, and talk about it, and there was no rush.  



However, she has become really upset and overwhelmed.  Hormones are not helping matters.  She says she doesn’t want to disappoint us but in her head she had committed to the second school and worries about “abandoning” her close friend.  It’s very tough to see her so upset, yet we feel the first school is the best one.   Should we just make the decision for her and tell her if it doesn’t work out she can lay all the blame on us?



Answer   The decision about which secondary school to go to is a big decision in the life of any 12-year-old.  In fact, it is likely to feel like the biggest decision they have yet made in their life so far.  In addition, this decision comes at a time when they are entering adolescence and able to think more long term, full of hormones and feeling emotions much more intensely.  


Your daughter is likely to be acutely aware of the pros and cons of schools, as well as the choices and losses about friendships.  This can feel like a lot of pressure.



Your question also raises the issue as to who should actually make the secondary school decision – should the child decide or should it be the parents?  And how do you resolve a dispute if there is one?  Legally, the answer is straightforward – the parents are responsible for making the decision.  However, from a child-centred psychological perspective, it is more complex.  



These big life decisions are best made in consultation with children and should take into account their needs and wishes.  In addition, the goal of parenting is to prepare children to make their own life decisions, so the ideal is to empower children to make good decisions as early as possible in their lives.



However, children develop differently at different ages – some are ready to take responsibility for big decisions at younger ages and others are not and need their parents to decide.  

Tragically, I see many children who have to make long term decisions which are not ready to make.  


For example, many parents let children decide how much contact to have with a parent in the case of parental separation (which has big implications for this relationship in the long term), when it is better for the child if the parents work hard to reach an agreement and decide together.




Appreciate the Stress of Making a Decision

So how do you help your own daughter in your own situation?  Firstly, it is important to acknowledge with your daughter the stress of making this decision.  She has the added complication of having to adjust her expectations – a decision had been made and her plans clear for one school and now she has to adjust.  Appreciate how hard it must be to consider changing at this time, after being committed to another school.  Also, listen and acknowledge her worries about letting her friend down.  Giving her time and space to express her feelings is really important.  Rushing a decision only adds to the pressure.



Say that it is Your Responsibility to

Make the Decision

To relieve her of the burden of the decision, say you, her parents, will make the final decision.  Say you will take plenty of time to listen and discuss the issues.  Set a date in the near future as to when you have to decide.  Before that time you want to know what she thinks, feels and wants, but you will make the final decision.  


Remind her that you love her and only want what is best for her.  This is likely to provide her with some relief and space to think.



Explore the Issues with Her

Take time to unpack her worries and concerns, such as “letting her friend down”.  Praise her for her kindness and concern and ask questions to tease out the underlying issues.  Does her friend have other children she is going with to the original school?  How could she still stay friends with her?  (Often it is good to have a friend outside your school.)  


Be prepared also to share your views and explain to her why you think they are in her “best interest”.  Doing up a list of pros and cons with her might be helpful so you can make notes and review these later.  Taking a break from discussions and “sleeping on” the question are also good ideas.  



With a bit of time and patience, it is likely that you reach a consensus and make a choice that your daughter agrees with.  Though it feel challenging and emotional at the moment for your daughter, making this big decision could also be the making of her and build her confidence and sense of responsibility.




John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology.  He is author of several parenting books including 'Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers'.  See




[I added headlines, colours, and emphasis of text to the above article, ICOB.]



Communication and Positive Relationships

Image 117788627, mother and teenage daughter chatting, 123RF stock image.







Famed educator and psychologist of the 1950s, Haim Ginott, developed ideas on the importance of communication and positive relationships with teenagers.  Joseph Sacks clarified some of Ginott’s work with his own ideas based on clinical and classroom experience.



Please bear in mind that the following represents a parenting ideal that may be very difficult to achieve.  Have patience with yourself and try to implement the following ideas little by little.



1.      Teenagers Crave Self-Determination

Your teen needs to feel independent.  Although limits need to be set, you need to give him or her as much autonomy as possible, within reason.  Too much freedom can be dangerous, but too little can be equally harmful as your teen will feel restricted, resentful, and maybe rebel.  Each teenager is unique, and where one child might thrive under your supervision, another may need more independence.

You must be wise and work out what is just the right amount of freedom your teen needs as he or she ages.



2.     Use “Golden Phrases”  

Golden phrases empower your teen and encourage him or her to take responsibility.  By saying things like, “You decide”, “Whatever you choose is fine with me”, and “I have confidence in your ability to make the right decision”, you communicate that you trust your teen.  



The truth is that we need to let teenagers make their own mistakes.  It is more important that your teen makes a self-determined choice than one determined by you as the parent.  Your child’s sense of self is at stake, and that may mean you have to let him or her choose, even if you would have chosen differently.



3.     Don’t remind Teens of their Younger Years

You may think about the times when your teen was growing up every day, but he or she would rather not.  Teens are trying to put distance between themselves and their childhood.  Statements like, “Remember when you were …” or “You were so cute when …” make your teen feel like a child at a time when he wants to be treated like an adult.



4.     A Teenager is an Unfinished Product

Your child is growing up, but he or she isn’t done yet.  He or she has not developed and refined character traits yet, and many important experiences still lie ahead of him or her.  As a result, your teen is bound to make poor choices and mistakes.  It is your duty as a parent not to point them out!  Your teen may believe you see flaws and shortcomings rather than his or her efforts to learn and grow.  This can be very threatening to your teen’s sense of self.  Not to mention, she or he is probably painfully aware of her or his mistakes anyway and doesn’t need help remembering.  [The human brain doesn’t mature until around 25-30 years.  ICOB.]



5.       Don’t Try to Prove You’re Right

You may know that you are right in a disagreement with your teen but resist the temptation to prove it.  When you engage in a battle of wills with your teen, it becomes about more than the issue you were debating.  Your teen’s very sense of self is involved and he or she has too much at stake to give in.  Trying to prove your point only creates resistance.  Instead, be patient and remember that sometimes you must let your teen learn from time and personal experience.



6.     Be Nice!

Many parents who are in a conflict relationship with their teen throw their hands in the air and exclaim, “Of course it’s that way, he’s a teenager!”  The truth, however, is that your relationship with your teen does not need to be this way.  There are parents who have warm, respectful, and relatively conflict-free relationships with their teens.  You can aim to achieve this by following the golden rule.  


While it may sound simple, parents often overlook how important it is to BE NICE!  Be nice to your teenager.  Be kind, gentle, forgiving and flexible.  As much as possible, be a source of pleasure to your teen, not stress.  She / he should think, “Mum always makes me feel good”.  Yes, limits need to be set, but you will be surprised how setting expectations in a nice, thoughtful, way can work wonders for your relationship with your teen.  [Often, in family life, people can get into a habit of speaking rudely or in an offhand way to each other.  Everyone should try to speak to others as they would like to be spoken to themselves.  If the discourse starts from a low, possibly coarse level, downwards is going to be pretty unpleasant.  ICOB.]



7.     Don’t Be Bossy

Teenagers hate being bossed.  The truth is that no one likes it.  But there are times when you have to tell your teen what to do, whether or not you think he or she will want to listen.  So, the answer is to keep your instructions to an absolute minimum.  There’s only a certain amount of instructions a teen can handle per day and still feel independent.  Let’s say, just as an example, that your teen can handle five commands per day without feeling bossed around.  You don’t want to waste those.  You want to spend them wisely on important items.  Try to resist the urge to tell him or her what to do on minor matters and save your precious few commands for more important items.  [It is always better to ask a teenager to help with folding laundry or preparing vegetables rather than giving an instruction.  Sitting together, preparing food for a meal, is a relaxed situation which often ends up involving chats on diverse matters, big or small.  This helps having conversations easier in general.  ICOB.]



Ironically, the fewer instructions your teen hears, the more likely he or she is to comply with the remaining few commands you do issue.  Try spending an afternoon without telling her or him what to do – not even once.  Then, at the end of the day, ask him or her nicely to complete one important task and you will be surprised to see him or her comply.  That is because the relief he or she felt at not being bossed all afternoon gave him or her a sense of self- determination and, therefore, the strength to comply.



8.     Ask Nicely!

When you do want or need to ask your teen to do something, remember to ask nicely.  It’s amazing how many parents bark orders at their teenagers instead of speaking to them politely.  How do you feel when your boss gives you a blunt order?  Teens appreciate being asked nicely just as well as adults do.


Try asking in and easy-going voice, “Would you please wash your hands before we eat?”.



9.     Never Criticise Negatively

Never use negative criticism with your teenager.  Even with the best intentions, criticism is poison to a teen.  It’s supposed to benefit him or her by correcting some sort of fault or mistake, but the damage done to his or her self-esteem far outweighs the benefit.  Additionally, your teen may come to resent you for your criticism, limiting your relationship and how effectively you can reach him.



10.     Praising your Teen

It can feel like your efforts to compliment your teen aren’t registering, or that they are doing more harm than good.  So, how do you praise a teenager?  The key is to avoid praise that is an evaluation, or where your teen may believe his or her value is based on performance.  Statements like, “You’re such a great footballer,” mean well, but they have several drawbacks.  [Praising someone for the sake of it is always patently insincere and of little value to the recipient.  That kind of praise is usually despised and does not reflect well on the one who gives it.  Often, such empty praise may be seen as a form of pressure to work harder on the matter praised and can be viewed as a back-handed compliment.  ICOB.]



First, these sorts of evaluative statements put pressure on your teen to always live up to an unrealistically high standard, to always be as good or better from now on.  He or she knows he / she can’t meet these expectations and feels bad or like he / she has failed.  Furthermore, this type of praise often feels untrue and insincere.  He or she knows he’s probably not truly a great at sports as he or she makes mistakes often.  Rather than helping him or her focus on his / her successes, excessive praise reminds him or her of mistakes.



Second, disproportionate or over-zealous praise can tempt your teen to accept an over-inflated sense of self which can easily be shot down by a few setbacks.  Instead of praise, try to use the golden tool of describing what you see your teen accomplish.  [For example, you might say, “Gosh, you made the catch,” or “I see you practised hard for an hour,” or “You finished all your homework early”.  This frees your teen to make his or her own judgments about him / herself.  ICOB.]  This creates true self-esteem, whereas evaluative praise, by contrast, creates a fragile sense of value based on others.



If your teen helps you around the house, instead of saying, “You’re great!” describe what he / she did: “You set the table, that was helpful, thanks”.  The point is to give a realistic picture of the accomplishment, not to glorify your teen.  Too much praise can make a person feel arrogant and uncomfortable.  Describing, on the other hand, leads to a realistic self-image and allows your teen to conclude about her / himself, “I am liked, I am appreciated, I am respected, I am capable”.  This ability to find self-value is true self-esteem.



11.     Give your Teen Privacy

Teenagers need privacy.  You may worry about your teen and want to know what is going on but avoid the temptation to pry too much into their lives.  Giving him / her some space and distance is a mark of respect, and you may even find your teen is more willing to open up.



12.      Don’t Lecture

Teenagers, like everyone else, hate sermons, lectures, and speeches.  Stick to short sentences only.  Instead of trying to explain to your teen why he never does his homework, just say, “Bobby, homework, please”.



13.      Don't Fututise

Futurising is when you tell your teen how his or her behavior now will affect the future.  

“If you ever want to get a job, you are going to have to learn to be more responsible”, for example.  Or, “What are they going to think of you in college with those table manners?”. 



These types of statements are just negative criticism and insults, which is exactly how your teen will perceive them.  

Futurising should be avoided like the plague.



14.      Discuss, Don’t Critique

If your teen has an interest you dislike – or can’t stand – try to express your own tastes rather than offering criticism.  [The next time your teen turns on his or her music, for example, avoid groaning or saying, “Turn down that rubbish”.  Instead, acknowledge their selection“I see you like rap” – and describe what you feel, “I still love Bowie”.  ICOB,]  Your teen will appreciate that you had a conversation instead of critiquing or dismissing his / her interests.



15.       Reflect, Don't Argue

If your teenager complains about your food, try not to argue.  Just reflect his or her complaint back, “Was the soup is too cold for you?  I was rushed today”.  This validates your teen’s experience and enables him or her to deal with it.  By accepting her / his feelings you make it easier to express her or his appreciation for your good cooking.  [I think it's reasonable to ask all children and young people to help with preparing a meal.  It's a chance to learn a lifelong skill and a good way to hear everyone's news of the day.  ICOB.]



16.      Respect your Teen’s Opinions

When your teenager expresses his or her opinion, you need to respect and validate it.  For example, “It sounds like you think the Manchester United aren’t going to make it into the top four this season”.  A young person’s opinions are like a small fire that needs to be carefully nurtured and kept aflame until it can develop into an adult belief system.  You need to show your teenager that it’s okay to disagree with you.  Try to see things from his or her viewpoint.  Never, ever ridicule or put down your teenager’s opinions.



Be very sparing even when you disagree with your teen.  If he or she expresses an idea you disagree with say, “I’d like to know how you came to that view.  Can you tell me more about it?”  Reflect what your teen said and only then say how you see things differently.


[Similarly, if your teenager expresses a vague idea and he / she is not completely sure how to get across, help him or her to express ideas more clearly by restating back what you understand was meant by what he or she said.  It could turn out you’ve completely misunderstood.  Being listened to and respected by one’s parents develops self-confidence and self-respect.  It helps a teenager turn into a successful adult, and your teenager will appreciate you for this.  ICOB]



17.      Reflect your Teen’s Experience

If your teen has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, reflect to her or him that you understand.  For example, “I know it’s tough getting out of bed on a cold morning.  It would really feel great if we could stay there longer”.  This validates your teen’s experience, and the pleasure and understanding she or he gets may give her / him the strength to get up.



18.       Always take your Teen’s Side

When a teenager comes home reporting a conflict with someone outside the house, don’t take the side of the other person.  Always support your teen, even if you suspect he or she was wrong.  By taking your teen’s side, he or she will feel more secure and, therefore, more likely to admit mistakes he or she has made.  When he / she comes home bruised from conflict, help and support are what are needed, not criticism or condemnation.  You need to be your teen’s defense team, always on his / her side.  Many parents think their children need them to be tough so they can learn to deal with adversity.  The opposite is true, however, and being warm and supportive is what will give your teen the strength to deal with challenges and uncertainty.



19.       Reflect your Teen’s Feelings

Reflective listening can serve as emotional first aid, helping your teen heal from emotional wounds.  You should always deal with your teen’s emotions before you start giving advice.  When your teen comes home complaining that someone has wronged him or her, use responses that reflect the feelings they are sharing.  For example, “Oh, that must have been embarrassing”, “Did that made you angry?”, and “You must have resented him for that”.  

When your teen sees that you understand how he or she is feeling, it helps diminish some of his or her strong emotional responses.



20.      Never Argue with your Teen’s Feelings

Accept your teenager’s feelings.  Reflect on what they’re experiencing and acknowledge their perceptions.  Never deny your teen’s feelings or experience.



21.      Accept that Schoolwork is a Burden

If your teenager complains about his / her schoolwork burden, don’t dismiss the concerns or say, “That’s life”.  Instead, reflect the difficulty back, “I can see you have a lot of work.  That volume of homework can be almost overwhelming when you must get it all done in one day.  Is there anything I can do to help?”.  

The pleasure of this type of validation gives your teen the strength to persevere without minimising his / her experience.



22.      Acknowledge your Teen’s Worries

If your teen is worried about a big game or performance, acknowledge his or her concerns.  You might say, “I know it’s scary to go out there and perform in front of all those people.  You may feel like they’re judging you.  Of course you feel nervous, it’s natural”.  This shows you understand how your teen feels and how she or he diffuses anxiety.  [The Bel Canto singer, Tony Bennett, tells a story of being in the wings before a performance and turning to see Frank Sinatra beside him.  He admired Sinatra greatly and told him he always gets very nervous before a performance.  Sinatra nodded and said, the day you’re not nervous is the day you give up performing.  ICOB.]



23.      Never Forbid Feelings

At times, parents may set limits on certain behaviours.  But we should never place limits on how teenagers are allowed to feel.  If your teen is angry, allow him or her to experience his or her feelings.  

Never forbid, deny or repress an expression of anger.  If your teen does become angry, never make fun of or belittle your teen for his or her response.  Anger does not go away when you forbid it; it just festers and gets worse.  Tell your teen, “I see you are feeling really angry”, encourage him or her to talk about how he or she is feeling and take time to listen well.



24.      Express Anger without Insult

By the same token as the previous suggestion, when you become angry as a parent you should also express your feelings.  But, the rule is “anger without insult” – you should never attack your teen’s personality.  Express how you feel, “I’m furious, I’m boiling, I’m livid, I can’t believe what happened”; but don’t blame, attack, or criticise.  Your teen needs to learn that you are a person who has strong feelings, too.



 25.      Reflect, Don't Argue

When your teen does something wrong, don’t attack, criticise, put down, moralise, lecture or give orders or commands.  All these things will put your teen on the defensive and make him or her feel bossed.  Instead, describe what you see, what you feel and what needs to be done.  Say, “There’s a huge mess in the living room after you and your friends.  It makes me annoyed to see things all over the floor; everything belongs back on the shelves”.  By describing the situation, your feelings and your expectations, you are giving your teen information in a respectful way, letting him or her know you have faith in him or her to behave appropriately.  This type of thoughtful, respectful, communication promotes healing and growth in your relationship with your child, increasing trust.  Remember, anger without insult.



26.     Tell your Teen when you Don't like His / Her Tone

When you don’t like the way your teen is talking, it is okay to tell him or her.  State clearly and directly – without criticising or placing blame – “It makes me uncomfortable when you talk that way”.



27.       Respond to Inappropriate Behaviour with Expectations

When your teen behaves inappropriately, instead of criticising, ordering, or insulting him or her, state your values and expectations clearly and concisely.  “In our house, we don’t call each other names”, for example.  Or, “In our house, we speak respectfully to one another”.  Haim Ginott developed the effective idea to write notes or emails to teens to address problems.  Notes are extremely well received: the very fact that you went out of your way to write a note shows tremendous respect for the reader.  


Additionally, instead of just blowing off steam and talking off the top of your head, writing a note allows you to plan and prepare what you have to say, making it much easier to control your passion and be constructive in your words.  The written word also lends tremendous importance to what you have to say and it will be taken very seriously.



28.       Hurl Values, Not Insults

Offer feelings, not criticism.  Use “I,” not “you”.  Statements like, “What is the matter with you”, or, “Look what you’ve done”, place judgment and blame.  Instead, describe your own values and experience: “I’m sorry this has happened”, or, “It’s a pity things worked out that way”.  You are making the same point, but you are doing so in a more positive and effective way.




You can Build a Healthy Relationship with Your Teen


Teenagers show respect for their parents when parents show respect for them!   Respect means that we should see the positive in our teens and appreciate their good qualities.  We should treat them with kindness and consideration, recognising and reflecting their experience.


[Many of us have been told “You must respect me, I’m your father”.  We may have been taught ‘to honour thy father and mother’, but no-one will truly respect another who doesn’t deserve it as shown by their behaviour and treatment of others, no matter who he or she may be



All humans are due respect, but people in authority are on a sticky wicket if they think claiming respect will make it so.  ICOB.]




 [I added headlines, colours, emphasis and additions to the text of the above article, ICOB.]




Building Resilience in Secondary School

Group of secondary school students in uniform, 123RF stock photo.







New study reveals ‘killjoy’ impact of progressing through secondary school


Resilience building is essential, and a tutor is key in talking through coping mechanisms with students for difficult scenarios



Tue, Jun 11, 2019, The Irish Times.


Sheila Wayman



The wellbeing of Irish secondary school students decreases steadily from first year through to sixth, with girls suffering more of a decline than boys, according to a newly published Study.


The findings conjure up an image of first-year students entering the secondary school system full of joie de vivre and optimism, only to emerge six years later burdened down by the worries of the world.  And that is probably exactly how many of the 55,000-plus students currently in the throes of the Leaving Certificate feel.


Of course, school is not the only thing happening in the life of adolescents.  However, as the Department of Education and Skills’s wellbeing policy (2018-2023) notes, they do spend a large proportion of their time in school during their formative years, therefore “schools play a key role in developing and enhancing young people’s wellbeing”.


Wellbeing is not simply an absence of “ill-being”, says Dr Jolanta Burke, a chartered psychologist specialising in positive education, who led the Study involving almost 3,000 secondary school students aged 12-19 in schools around the Country.  Yet up to recently wellbeing tended to be measured by weighing up the degree of negative elements such as depression, anxiety and self-harm.


“It is one way of looking at it, but it is not a way of capturing the wellbeing factors,” she says.



While the questionnaire used for the Study included reference to negative emotions and loneliness, it focused mainly on assessing wellbeing criteria such as engagement, happiness, meaning, achievement and relationship.


These wellbeing “skills” are increasingly being recognised as offering protection against mental health problems, just as a healthy diet and exercise lower the risk of physical illness and speed recovery after an ailment.



“Just because somebody has depression does not mean they don’t have the capacity to bounce back from it,” says Burke of the University of East London, who co-authored with Stephen James Minton of Trinity College Dublin a paper on the study that has been published in the latest edition of Irish Educational Studies.


“I had depression when my father died – but it was quite a normal reaction to death of someone really close, and my resilience skills and wellbeing helped me to get out of it faster.”





It is also normal for students to experience anxiety, for example, just before their Leaving Certificate exams (or other major State exams), but wellbeing skills can help them cope with this stress much better.  Burke does not believe that the decline in wellbeing tracked by her Study is an inevitable part of growing up.  However, the stress of school exams is undoubtedly a factor.


She says everything centres around the Leaving Cert, and when students enter secondary school they slowly become more and more focused on that one moment. “It keeps coming closer and closer.”  When she visited more than 50 schools over a two-year period, senior cycle students talked of being “petrified” about the looming Leaving Cert, believing that their chances of getting into university, a good job and even being able to buy a house all depended on it.


“They were putting themselves under pressure, their parents were putting them under pressure, teachers were putting them under pressure.  No fun, just work, work, work – a bad idea.”



That’s a message some parents need to hear.  Burke recalls a recent visit to the home of a friend whose now teenage daughter she has known all her life.  “She always had fantastic after-school activities such as martial arts, drawing and dancing, doing all these fun things, and she was always excited afterwards.  I was really shocked her after-school activities are now just additional classes – language classes and grinds.”


At home “all my friend was doing was screaming at her to ‘get off the phone and study’.”


Burke asked the girl when she had last been rollerblading because she used to love that, and she said not since last Summer because she had not had time since. 


Positive emotions, says Burke, are about creating moments in everyday life, not just over the weekend, that allows students to have fun, joy, a bit of carefree time.


“This is something that needs to happen in order to protect themselves from depression, from anxiety.  That doesn’t mean if they have it they won’t have depression, but it is a very important aspect of keeping their mental health in check.”




School work apart, it is still very hard to be a teenager, she says.  “Hormones are running wild, and some teenagers don’t have the support to help them through it.”  But those who have good support from parents or “one good adult”, and have a good balance in their life, are likely to develop better wellbeing skills.


“So when they get to that difficult time it does not hit them as hard,” she says.  “Adolescence is really unfortunately timed,” says child and adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor,   “because it is the point in your life when you are most scrutinised, coming at a time when you are most vulnerable.”  

As a result, he says “wellbeing is an ambitious concept for anyone between the ages of 11 and 19”.



When he asks young people what they think mental wellbeing is, they are likely to reply “happiness”.  But if you consider happiness to be laughing, jubilant contentment, we probably spend less than 1 per cent of our lives that way.  “If you expect that all the time you are going to spend 99 per cent of your life disappointed or feeling that you are missing out.”

In other words, our expectations of what wellbeing and happiness should be may make us more unhappy.



“We live in a very mentally unhealthy world from the point of view of the pace, the pressure, expectations, the comparative culture, the tyranny of choice – all that stuff is incredibly more intense and difficult than it ever was.


“Children are not weaker and lesser than they ever were,” says Noctor, of St Patrick’s mental health services in Dublin and author of ‘Cop On’.  “They are trying to manage a much more difficult landscape than we did, without the necessary space to develop the skills to be able to manage it.  Think how many times you tell a child to hurry up in the day.”


Now that children are growing up in a far more anxious environment, they need extra skills to cope.  “In the 1980s we had lots of time – we stood waiting for buses, or sat on a wall waiting for a lift – we had plenty of time to be mindful.  Mindfulness has become popular now because our world is mindless.”



Boredom Class

He worries that the “wellbeing” programmes being implemented in the junior cycle of secondary schools since 2017 could be tokenistic.  He also wonders if we are over-complicating matters.  Why not a “boredom class”, he says, where “once a week there was 40 minutes of nothingness” – with no need for facilitators, videos or interactive white boards.  “We just need to sit and take stock.”   While he believes the curriculum for social, personal and health education (SPHE) is a really useful notion, it still all depends on the willingness and the enthusiasm of the teacher to run it.  Does it become a doss class or something that is meaningful?



“Anything that is universally rolled out and is at the mercy of the facilitator has the potential to be great or not so great, but it is an unfortunate indictment of where we are.  We shouldn’t need to do this but we do, so let’s do it well.”

Jolanta Burke: “I had depression when my father died – but it was quite a normal reaction to death of someone really close, and my resilience skills and wellbeing helped me to get out of it faster.”



At St Wolstan’s Community School in Celbridge, Co Kildare, Deputy Principal, Anne Smyth, believes a good wellbeing programme can alleviate demotivation, demoralisation and despondency.  “Life is tough for everybody; some kids deal with things well and others don’t.  It’s a matter of trying to empower them to deal with the fallouts of life because things happen.”


The School set up a “wellbeing committee” to consider initiatives it might take.  First it consisted of seven teachers who then invited two student representatives from each year, from first to fifth, to join them.



Proposals they have implemented during the past year include a dance in the PE hall on Mondays to improve physical activity; walking at lunchtime on Wednesdays; the display of inspirational quotes around the School, eg, on the stair risers, toilet cubicle doors etc, to uplift all school personnel; and the setting up of a “gratitude wall” in the reception area.



Tutor Time

Currently schools have to provide 300 hours of “wellbeing” to junior cycle students, and this is mainly timetabled through SPHE, civic, social and political education (CSPE) and physical education classes, says Smyth.  By 2020 this is to be increased to 400 hours.  One of the ways St Wolstan’s is going to do this is to have eight minutes of “tutor time” at the beginning of every day.



“It is all about building a relationship between the tutor and the student, so it is not just going to be registration and check notes,” says Smyth.  Parents sometimes don’t have time in the morning when they are rushing out, so the school community is very important, and this will be a chance to notice if a student is missing, or late, or showing signs of vulnerability.



Resilience building is essential, she says, and “the tutor is key in talking through coping mechanisms with students of difficult scenarios that may arise. The relation with one significant adult is important.”  Up to now tutors have not been able to move up through the school with their classes, as is done in some schools, but Smyth believes this is a good idea, and it is something they are looking at.


The most pressing issue in schools is the impact of social media on young people, says Smyth, and St Wolstan’s, an all-girls school, is no exception.  The wellbeing programme tries to address the fallout through education and SPHE classes.


The School is considering the banning of mobile phones, and is consulting with parents, students and staff on the matter.  But it’s very difficult because not only are phones such an integral part of young people’s lives, but the school is also quite progressive in its use of IT.  


While the school broadband filters out social media, phones using 3G and 4G can access it.  “There’s issues with that.  They are under stress because their lives are so public, they live everything so publicly.  You’re trying to teach them to discern and discriminate between what’s appropriate to be publishing and not.”



Negative Emotions

In Burke’s Study females reported lower levels of wellbeing across the board than males, and also higher levels of negative emotions and loneliness.  She was surprised that engagement was lower in girls, as was a sense of achievement and physical health. 


Positive relationships was the only wellbeing factor that ranked equally for both genders.  


Some of these differences, Burke speculates, may be due in part to a high level of negative body image amongst adolescent females.  And this can be exacerbated through more frequent use of social media.  The field work for the Study was done just before the introduction of the junior cycle wellbeing programme, and Burke suggests it could be used as a benchmark in measuring the impact by repeating the research in a few years’ time.



She believes the Department of Education and Skills has not been directive enough in its guidelines on wellbeing for schools, leaving many unsure of what they should be doing.  


More structure has to be put in place, and programmes that are being used must be evidence-based, such as one being widely used in Australia.  Enhancing the wellbeing of students can potentially reduce many problems in school such as bullying.



“If we had people who are well psychologically,” says Burke, “they wouldn’t have a need to bully others, and you would also have people who are able to protect themselves from it.  Also, bystanders are more likely to feel comfortable in standing up for others.”



She thinks depression could also be reduced because students would be better able to deal with challenges, and it could address some discipline problems too.  As for parents who think school wellbeing programmes are just depriving their children of vital class time in the pursuit of higher Leaving Cert points, at St Wolstan’s Smyth says “wellbeing is the mortar to the bricks of academic learning – and if you get that right the academic learning will be better.”





Secondary school students hit hardest by low levels of wellbeing are those who are under-using their character strengths.


This is the conclusion of the study ‘Wellbeing in Post-Primary Schools in Ireland: the Assessment and Contribution of Character Strengths’ by Dr Jolanta Burke and Stephen James Minton, published in Irish Educational Studies.  However, it’s one finding that Burke says gives her a lot of hope because it indicates a clear way for potentially boosting students’ wellbeing.  Working to your own character strengths can create a lot of positive emotions, she says, but many young people are unaware of what they are.


In the course of Trinity College research she was involved in some years ago, they asked Leaving Cert students to identify their character strengths.  “We were shocked because over 90 per cent of them didn’t pinpoint their top character strengths correctly,” she says.  This meant they were unable to consciously draw on them when things got tough.


Schools in Australia, US and UK are looking at how better to equip students with self-knowledge about what type of strengths they have, she says, so they can use them through difficult times.  

“I think we live in a society which is so focused on improvement, we forget what is good about us,” says Burke, who believes schools and parents have to make a greater effort to help students understand their strengths.


Pioneering US positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman  led a team of social scientists in developing the VIA classification of 24 character strengths and virtues.


If, like this writer, you’ve never taken a questionnaire to explore your own, you might be interested to know that the non-profit VIA Institute on Character, based in Ohio, offers free online surveys of character strengths for both adults and youths aged 10-17 at


[I tried this questionnaire, to fill it in is free and one gets one or two lines on each of one’s 24 character strengths and virtues, ranked 1 to 24.  To get the full results, rather than the short version, costs between $20 and $50, ICOB.]




[I added headlines, colours, and emphasis of text to the above article, ICOB.]






Best of Luck!

Regards, Iseult

Iseult Catherine O’Brien



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