It is very easy for fear to become our overriding emotion as we digest the uncertainty that has invaded our lives over the past month. We are faced with uncertainty over the health of our nearest and dearest, economic uncertainty on an individual and macro level, and uncertainty over what the future holds. The latter is felt particularly by our oldest boys, not just in the short-term with concerns over their GCSE and A Level examinations, but also over how universities and the employment market will respond further down the line.
Unfortunately, human evolution has hard-wired our brains to react to uncertainty with fear. Neuroimaging studies have shown that the more uncertainty research patients are subjected to, the more the brain shifts control to the limbic system, generating emotions such as anxiety. When we were hunter-gatherers, this instinct was essential. When cavemen entered an unfamiliar area, they didn’t know who or what was lurking in the bushes. Their overwhelming caution and fear ensured their survival in such circumstances, which has led ultimately to the unparalleled success of the human race.
In the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we therefore need conscious effort to escape from the negative feelings engendered by this inevitable uncertainty. In my most recent communications with the boys (both my final assemblies with Years 11 and 13, and my audio message last week), I spoke about ‘controlling the controllable’. We all know that it makes sense to fret only about those things over which we exercise any influence through the decisions and actions we might take. However, achieving this is more easily said than done. However, the more we can model this behaviour for our sons by focusing on what we can influence, and putting what we can’t to one side, the better. The School has been using this approach with our communications with Years 11 and 13 boys. It is only slowly becoming clear how their examination grades will be calculated. There is uncertainty because we have been told that anyone dissatisfied with the grades they achieve will be permitted to sit the exams they have missed once schools re-open. However, what boys can control is how they consolidate their knowledge of the subjects they have been studying for the past two years. We have advised that they undertake some sensible revision during this period (as they had been intending to do in the first place). They will then be as well prepared as they can be for the consequences of future decisions to be made for them by government, universities and others. They will be doing as much as they can to retain control over their academic destiny.
A much-quoted prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr seems appropriate at this juncture:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
The second way to banish our anxiety, is to be proactive in looking for the positives in our lives. I have read a great deal already about how families of teenagers are actively enjoying spending more time with one another. Several of my friends have commented that they have rediscovered some of the things that they hadn’t really done as a family for 2 or 3 years, such as playing board games and watching films together. In my household it has been the Great Loughborough Bake-Off, encouraged by Sixth Form tutors. It has been rather joyous to see the kitchen covered in chocolate, eggs, flour and caster sugar, even if enthusiasm for washing-up has been less impressive.
In this period, we should try to derive joy from the mundane: cooking, gardening, birdsong, our mandated daily walk. Doing something creative or learning a new skill will also contribute to good mental health during our isolation, and we have had some great feedback from pupils about new musical instruments being learned, models being constructed and computer programs being written. Again, exerting some control over individual projects will help boys to feel more in control of their lives as a whole. If instead your son is glued to a screen and achieving little, try to reset expectations now, as we may be in this situation for some weeks yet.
I very much hope that you will take advantage of the warmer weather forecast for the next week to enjoy a little fresh air, if only in your garden.
Reading recommendation for your son
Whilst Amazon is still delivering, an excellent introduction for teenagers into how their brain works is Blame My Brain by Nicola Morgan.