Westonbirt Headmistress talks teenage hopes and fears

PUBLISHED: 11:35 04 December 2019 | UPDATED: 11:35 04 December 2019

Natasha Dangerfield, headmistress of Westonbirt School. Photo credit: SamJPeat

Natasha Dangerfield, headmistress of Westonbirt School. Photo credit: SamJPeat


At the Independent Schools Show, Natasha Dangerfield discussed why the teenage years can be such a challenging time and how parents can offer support

Earlier this month, Westonbirt Headmistress, Natasha Dangerfield, spoke at the Independent Schools Show tackling the complex issue of 'teenage hopes and fears.' A parent of three teens with significant experience in pastoral care, Natasha reassured the audience not to be scared if their adolescent offspring begin to grunt or display behaviors reminiscent of the famous Harry Enfield sketch!

"It is not something we should be frightened of or worry that it is an immediate sign of anxiety," she says. "There has been considerable research into the teenage brain over the past ten years and psychologists and neuro scientists have discovered that disconnecting neuro pathways play a significant role in changing behaviours during these critical years."

Mrs Dangerfield acknowledged that this time can be hurtful for parents and potentially damaging to family relationships. "Through their formative years children are hoping to fly to the moon; to become a sports star; a world leading medic or an actor. Once they reach thirteen or fourteen, they begin making choices about GCSEs, feeling the pressure of coursework and wondering what on earth is going on as their brains undergo significant change. Teenagers are looking for answers and perhaps coming up with responses they do not want to find; realising that maybe they won't make it to the moon, perhaps can't be a doctor and possibly are set for something other than Broadway. That's difficult. As parents and teachers, we have to sit alongside them as they make this journey. It is their rite of passage and it is a difficult one when combined with hormones and social pressures. Fears are borne out of hope and it is natural for teens to be fearful as they realise that maybe we can't make their childhood dreams come true."

Natasha urged parents to think carefully about who they are dealing with and to remember that each child will be individual in their approach and personality during this often-difficult time. "The students I see on a daily basis are each navigating their personal journey slightly differently. Some are disengaged, others motivated, several have fallen out with everybody or may actually be right on side. As educators and as parents we have a responsibility to create consistency because that is the one thing that teenagers may not find it easy to establish. They may not be able to find their way alone but with you sitting alongside them, telling them that it is OK, making clear that they should not speak to you rudely and that their bedroom floor should not resemble a compost heap but, that actually, you are there for them. Reassuring them you will help to tidy up; that you can sit down and discuss why becoming a movie star perhaps isn't their best option and that there will be a path that is the right route for them; is a valuable part of their journey and indeed yours, as a parent or as a teacher."

Natasha also stressed the importance of stepping back and not judging teenagers, resisting what may be on the tip of our tongue as an adult with the benefit of a greater sense of our own emotional wellbeing: "Teenagers need to be empowered and we have to create time and space for that to happen." Ultimately, Natasha's message was that hopes and fears are natural, as adults we still have them and we must allow our teenagers the opportunity to process their own. "Nerves are common and actually what most of our teenagers are experiencing is normal. Sadly, there are a few who will suffer from serious anxiety, for whom fear of failure is so debilitating that they cannot even get through the door in the morning. For those families there is help and working with schools and medical professionals in a triangulated approach will, hopefully, in time allow these young people to also find their way."

The key with all teenagers, Natasha assured her audience, is providing them with consistency, care, time and space. Allowing them to be teenagers until they discover the adults that they are destined to become.

You can find out more about Westonbirt School here.

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