When parents are faced with navigating the perilous paths of their children starting or returning to school, their own experience doesn't always fit the bill when it comes to providing positive support for their kids. Luckily, Family Psychotherapist Richard Hogan showed up at the weekend to talk to Brendan O’Connor about this exact topic. And it was essential listening for parents of children gearing up for school. A key part of dealing with a child’s anxiety is dealing with the parent’s own feelings:

"What’s really important for parents is that they manage themselves, that’s the first thing I always says to parents when they're sitting in my clinic about [their] child’s anxiety. I talk about their own experience growing up and they’re kind of taken back by that. I’m talking about accessing their memories of the school system, of their family, where they came in the family, it’s always present in how we parent children. So, we have to always watch ourselves and the fear is that we project our anxieties onto our children, that’s what often I see happening."

For parents with children starting school for the first time, with their emotional parents walking them in or standing watching them go into the classroom, Richard’s clear advice is don’t:

"You have to turn around and walk away. You don’t stand there, you don’t linger around because the child’s going to have a little glance back to see if you’re there and if they see you waiting there to see can they manage it, they’re gone. Because they realise Mum doesn’t believe, or Dad doesn’t believe that I have the skills to manage this, so I mustn’t have the skills to manage this."

The whole experience of starting school can be something of a sensory overload for 5-year-old brains, especially after a summer of hanging out almost exclusively with one or both parents. Richard suggests parents use the time remaining before school to start to separate from their children – bring them to playdates and step out for 15 minutes, for example because the long summer can cause children’s identities to become, as Richard puts it, enmeshed with their parents:

"When you bring them to school, drop them off a couple of days beforehand because, something we’d say in family therapy, 'Too much difference is too much.’ If the first day you drop them off is the first day they separate from you, it’s going to be like Mike Tyson, you know, ‘Everyone’s got a plan until you get punched in the face.’ If your child is standing there screaming, saying, ‘I want Mum or Dad,’ you’re going to acquiesce and you’re going to take them away and then you’re going to build their belief that they don’t have the skills to manage this because Mum and Dad just removed me from the situation and you get yourself caught in a very tricky situation with your child."

With older children starting or returning to secondary school, the big challenge for parents is technology and the huge role of phones and apps in the lives of teenagers:

"The chances of a child now experiencing exclusion – that's a huge problem – is profound because of technology."

When a teenager sees his or her friends playing football, for example, on Instagram or TikTok, the immediate question is, ‘Why wasn’t I asked?’ And the pain of being excluded is very real:

"You feel that, psychologically-speaking. Neuroscience would say you feel that actually like you hurt your hand with a hammer. The same part of the brain fires when you’re excluded socially."

Parents, Richard says, need to have a technology policy. The first item on the policy should be no smartphone before secondary school. But if the child doesn’t have a phone in secondary school, they’ll find themselves isolated somewhat from their peers, which is not ideal.

"These devices aren’t an evil, but we just have to parent them. So it’s about allowing our kids to be on them, but also to be separate from them and having a really good policy as parents."

As anybody with a teen in the house will tell you, adolescence is a tricky time for everybody. For parents, the small person that used to look up at them as the finest adulthood had to offer, now as a teen tends to be a little less adoring. In short, as far as a teen is concerned, parents are just not cool.

"What I say to parents is, it’s about being together differently for these 6 years. It’s a tricky 6 years, but you’ve got to let them out with a little bit of agency – that's controlled agency, because they’re not sophisticated to manage it completely – and so you let them out and what you’re trying to do as a parent, you’re playing defence, you’re trying to minimise the risks that they make and the severity of those errors when they make them."

But boundaries are vital. As Richard tells Brendan, he’s never heard a child say that they must thank their parents for never checking up on them.

"Research will show you, if you’re involved in your child’s life and there are boundaries, there’s a 33% less chance of them getting involved in risky behaviour online. And so they have to always know that we’re involved and that we’re there."

And, Brendan adds, this boundary-setting will ensure that parents are not popular with their teens and they should be prepared for this. Richard agrees and says it’s important that parents stand firm in the face of vibes of dislike coming from their kids because without boundaries, the entire outcome of children’s lives can be affected:

"I fundamentally believe that through a chink too wide comes no wonder, you know? When a child gets everything, they appreciate nothing. You see it at parties, kids unwrapping presents and throwing them on the floor. They’ve got no joy in what’s going on. Then they move into adolescence and they’re the same kind of kid. They move into the adult world and they’re actually unlikable and you know they expect the whole world to revolve around them."

Richard has one key thing that he tells parents dealing with teens when it comes to social problems at school – be by their side, not on it. And you can hear more on that and everything else Brendan discussed with Richard Hogan, by going here.