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All posts for the month February, 2015

It’s that time of the year. University and other tertiary education institutions are gearing up for another influx of new students. Togas and silly hats may dominate the landscape of our university precincts as the more academic of the next generation step up to take their sought-after places in the hallowed corridors of learning.

Parents who may be sending younglings off to tertiary education for the first time, might be a little worried. Parents’ worry may be affected by their own recall of events from when they, themselves, first left home for academic pursuits (that is, given their recall has not been affected by poor brain-care habits over ensuing years). Parents may be both excited for their young adult children and a little apprehensive about the hi-jinks they may be exposed to and/or engaged in.

The student-child is somewhat of a developmental and social grey area.

The job of the parent/carer becomes even more fuzzy and tricky to define while the offspring is both dependent and independent. The student-child is still on your Medicare card, but they also have one of their own. They are enrolled to vote and licensed to drive, but many heading to a university or college will still be quite financially dependent and will still require a safe base to come back to in times of need.

You have done much to assist your children to get to this point. Their university entrance scores are shiny. Their neurobiology is still simultaneously quick to react and primed for socialising. They have likely survived the adventures of schoolies, likely seen or experienced some sort of illicit substance and no doubt partaken in an alcoholic beverage or two – despite growing up in an era when they know more about the concerning effects of this on their brain and body health than ever before. They have a new laptop/tablet or similar learning device that Nan’s Christmas money assisted to purchase. Some hold down regular casual work where they may hold quite a deal of responsibility. They have survived the social-media-goes-mobile-phone teen years, have veered somewhat away from Facebook (because their parents are enjoying Facebook, too, these days), and they can text, inbox and post selfies at a rapid pace.

So, what on Earth should your student-child pack with them for this next chapter of their life?

Well, researchers probably know more about students than any other population on the planet. The job of many under-graduate students (aside of course from pursuing their academic best) is to participate in numerous studies as the test subjects/guinea pigs/lab rats. It is easy for academic researchers to access cohorts of university students without even having to pack their clip boards into their motor vehicles. Thus, cumulatively, we know a lot about the university student sample.

Research has helped inform us about students and their emotional health. One group of university researchers surveyed undergraduate students to determine the strategies that best assisted student to “flourish” in their emotional health. It turns out that the students who were involved in the study used a lot of strategies to help their emotions including understanding and analysing feelings, talking to someone, doing something enjoyable, being grateful, using alcohol and coffee, treating oneself, and consulting an advisor or mentor.

Importantly, though, it was not so much what the students did to manage emotionally rather than what they did not do that seemed to separate the languishing students from the flourishing students.

Flourishing students did not avoid as much as languishing students. Flourishing students engaged and took part rather than used avoidance to manage their emotions. The researchers recommended less avoidance and more engagement when it came to student emotional health.

Additionally, a different group of researchers looked at students who were living away from home and sharing a living space with other students. After studying 103 pairs of students sharing a residence in their first year, the researchers concluded that first years were more likely to “catch” a vulnerability to depression if they shared with a cognitively vulnerable room mate.

Your student-child could do well to engage in student life and a variety of different coping measures and encourage their room-mates to do the same.

So, parents…., it would be wise to keep an eye on your student-child if you notice they are avoiding and living in close proximity to others who may be vulnerable to not coping. Be alert if they are spending less time with others, less time at the books and more time doing, well…, not much. Meanwhile, if you garner evidence that your student-child is interacting, participating, sharing and venting, then you may feel a little more at ease about their transition to tertiary learning. You could continue to worry about them if you wanted to, but that’s not a strategy that researchers can recommend at this point in academic history. The worrying and ruminating parent is a whole other body of research – it’s lucky we have a new bunch of academics researchers on the rise!

I’ve heard it said on more than one occasion –

Talking to kids about their feelings is just the latest hocus pocus, mushy, hippie fad!

Why would you want to bother talking about feelings? Ffft!”

“Nobody talked to me about my feelings when I was a kid and I turned out okay”.

Yes, to some extent feelings are pretty straightforward. When it boils down to it, most of us will do more of the things that make us feel good, (or less bad), and less of the things that make us feel bad, (or less good). Simple, right?! However, like most things to do with our clever human bodies, feelings are much more complex than they seem.

People can get into all sorts of messes with their feelings.

Some people try to completely tune out and avoid feeling. Think about people you know who might use alcohol, substances or even work to avoid fixing certain problems in their lives. Some people get completely bowled over by their feelings becoming almost paralysed or bogged down in their moods. Many people mess with their feelings or have trouble understanding, regulating and using the feedback from feelings.

So, what exactly is a feeling?

Basically, a feeling is our body’s way of telling us what is going on. Our feelings are our body’s way of providing feedback. If we don’t tune in and understand feelings, then it’s like going about our business without getting told what is working and what is not working. Without feelings, we would be aimless and, more worryingly, perhaps we would keep doing hurtful or harmful things without knowledge. That’s just not very helpful for human kind at all.

Our clever bodies come with an inbuilt “standard feelings fit-out” to help us with feedback about the world – the world of our body, the world of our interactions with things and people, and the world inside our own minds.

Some of our feelings are generated by our own bodies – like when we are coming down with a cold….we feel lousy. The chemicals inside our body generate a feeling in our body and we respond by maybe lying down, having a day at home or going to the doctor.

Some of our feelings are generated by our reactions to things that happen in our world – we hear a sudden loud noise and get a fright or we see someone else get hurt. Our brains take in information, send messages to our body to react and our body sends feelings back to our brain to let us know what is going on and to keep us safe.

Some of our feelings are generated by our thoughts. We can create our own world of feelings without even leaving our bed in the morning. Our body responds to what our mind is thinking. Thoughts can generate feelings. We can have feelings by generating worries that negatively anticipate what might happen to us in the future (like the idea that we won’t have any friends to play with at our new school) or we can positively anticipate (like the idea that you might get a great present for your birthday tomorrow).

Psychologists use a variety of interventions to treat humans (both the adult and the child varieties) who have mental health concerns or to rehabilitate people with behaviours that have led them to dire consequences. Many interventions are based on the idea that by tuning into their feelings and taking some control and ownership of them, people can gain more control over their outlook, their behaviours and therefore, their quality of life.

It is the job of caring adults to help children learn about their feelings in a way that will ultimately help them to use their feelings in ways that benefit them and others. Like the many other amazing things a child learns to do as they grow into adulthood, children need a bit of support in the early years to get into good habits with their feelings.

Helping people tune into feelings and learn how to regulate or adjust the volume of their feelings helps them to better understand and use their feelings to guide thier choices and their behaviour. We need to help guide children to get the most out of their “standard feelings fit-out” without overcomplicating it.