Talking to your teenager about Leavers

It's the time of year that many parents dread — WACE exams are coming to an end and teenagers all over Australia are getting ready for Leavers. Read on for some tips to help ease parental anxiety and prepare your children for this rite of passage.

A couple of years ago I made a deal with my then upper primary school aged son that, instead of going to Leavers, he could come with me to Paris and I would let him eat as many croissants as he wanted. Now — unsurprisingly — he’s saying he wants to waive the offer of unlimited French pastries in the City of Light to hang out on a local beach with friends!

So if parents can’t entice their sons (or daughters) away from the annual post-school ritual, what should they do to help ensure it’s not their child they see in the November news reports about unruly school leavers? What has worked for other parents?

Some of my friends with daughters have gone away with them and a group of their girlfriends, but I’ve not heard of anyone whose sons and his friends agreed to sharing Leavers accommodation with their mum or dad!

Dr Arne Rubinstein, as well as being a parenting expert, has two sons of his own, now in their 20's, who went to Leavers and survived.

“I remember vividly that experience,” he said.

“You have kids who for the first time are getting the privileges of being an adult, with access to alcohol, drugs and staying out late, but they can act like children without the responsibilities of adulthood.This means they can go out and be crazy — and they can get themselves into a lot of trouble.It becomes a rite of passage and I would like to see rites of passage formalised, so they are recognised in a formal way rather than by doing something like Leavers.”

Dr Rubinstein says there is an African proverb that is very pertinent to Leavers:

If we don’t initiate our youth, they will burn down the village to feel the heat 
African proverb

Based on his rich experience, he offers some advice for parents:

1. Spend time with your children before they go to Leavers and have conversations with them about how they can be safe.

"Have discussions about what they really want to do and how they can do it safely. With my two, I knew I couldn’t say nothing — and I couldn’t lecture them because they didn’t want that. But I asked them how they were going to deal with situations and to visualise things.” 

These included the ready availability of alcohol, drugs, fights, driving cars and staying out late.

“I actually found my boys really insightful and it was a valuable exercise,” Dr Rubinstein said. “The key is to let them give you the answers, rather than telling them what they should do."

While I fortunately have a few years to prepare for my son going to Leavers, I always find a hot chocolate at a cafe, away from other family members and distractions of the home, is a great way to connect on difficult issues.

2. Acknowledge to your children that Leavers is a rite of passage and they should have a great time. 

“Also say to them that you don’t want to see them get into trouble,” he said. “But let them know that no matter what happens, you’re there for them and will support them.”

That was the basis of what other parents said they had told their children, but Dr Rubinstein encouraged parents to help foster additional support. “Encourage kids to talk to their mates they’re going with and ask how they’re going to look after each other," he said. "The more support networks they can put in place the better.”

3. Tell your child stories about when you were teenagers.

This can help build empathy and trust.

Other parents who have survived Leavers spoke about the importance of staying connected and involved in the process. This can mean being involved in booking accommodation and explaining the consequences if they break the house rules. Vital for most parents is that they have a level of contact with which they and their children are comfortable. For some people that can be once a day, for others it’s twice a day. Some parents set specific ground rules, such as not to walk back to their accommodation alone at night. Others encouraged their children to be aware of external support services such as Red Frogs, especially if they were prone to anxiety.

Despite all the parental anxiety around Leavers, what I took away from talking about it with others is that despite the dire warnings and scenes of debauchery in the media in late November, the overwhelming majority of kids do ultimately step up to take responsibility that goes with their new-found freedom.

More information:

The Making of Men by Dr Arne Rubinstein