Valedictory guard of honourTHEY warned us it would happen. That the year would simply fly by and before we knew it, it would be time. Crunch-time. Finals. And at that meeting for Matric parents in February in the Springfield Convent School music hall, where Kate had often performed a piano recital at concerts throughout her school career, I felt something squeeze my heart and a vague (okay, it wasn’t all that vague!) sense of panic settled on me like an unwelcome mist.

Now the Finals are upon us, and as Jack would say: Oh Em Double Ewe, Momsy! O.M.W. Indeed. I have to admit I’m a tad anxious. So instead of completely falling apart, I decided to turn to Three Wise Women in my community for support and advice. My quest: how to manage my own anxiety so that I can support Kate as best I can.

My three Cape Town sages, who have been down this stressful path, are: Vanessa Kerwin, counsellor and mother of Jessica, Charlotte and Olivia; Cathy Rackstraw, counsellor at Maxwell, Newton & Rackstraw and mother of Jenny, Emily and Andrew, and Sally Bingham, life coach at RedStep Coaching and mother of three grown-up children.

Here are their splendid strategies for staying sane.

Vanessa
Vanessa Kerwin on coping with matric stress

Each child is different: Jess, who matriculated from Springfield Convent School in 2013, and Charlotte, who matriculated from Westerford High School in 2016, approached their Matric year, and their exams, very differently – and that informed how I tackled it. With Jess I found it very stressful as she had very high expectations, which were not always realistic. She put a lot of pressure on herself as she had subjects such as History, Life Sciences and Art, which are hard work. Charlotte, who studied the Sciences, put a lot of pressure on herself to get seven distinctions …

Jess retreated to her room and stayed there. She would shut the door, and shut us out, so I never knew if she was okay, if she was studying … but she needed to enclose herself upstairs and I had to accept it! Charlotte, on the other hand,  needed to be downstairs in the thick of things! She set herself up in my study, which is also where I consult with clients, so it was chaotic. There were papers all over the place, her computer and things all around her … and I had to accept that too!

Don’t make comparisons: There is mammoth expectation on the kids to do well and go to university. The stakes are high. Try not to compare your children to their friends or the daughters of your friends. One of Jess’ friends was accepted to study Medicine very early on in the Matric year when Jess had not even thought about what she wanted to study … so there was that pressure as well. Reassure your children all the time to make them feel secure.

Be tolerant: During her Matric year, when Jess behaved badly, she’d turn round and say: “I’m in Matric …” as if that explained it all! Then Charlotte cottoned on to it, too! My advice to moms is be tolerant when it comes to their doing household chores etc. Don’t nag them to do things, it’s not important. Let it go.

Be practical: Sometimes I was overcome by feelings of helplessness, which was stressful. It’s a terrible feeling, there is only so much that you can do!

I would then try to be practical – buy them the special pens they wanted to make studying easier, cook their favourite meals, make sure there were loads of snacks, stock the fridge … I also turned to my friends who were in the same situation. Talking about it helped me a lot.

Manage their anxiety: It’s all about managing your child’s anxiety, but it’s important not to take it on yourself. It was worse with Jess, who did a BA at UCT and is now doing a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) at UCT,  but it got better with Charlotte. Your first child always gets the best – and the worst! – of your parenting. Second-time-round you learn to go with the flow …! Children all respond differently to stress: Jess retreated into herself, and became very grumpy and irritable with her siblings. I had to manage that as it was not fair on Charlotte and Olivia – they bore the brunt of her stress – even though I had huge empathy with Jess.  Charlotte, who is in her first year doing a BSc at UCT, was more open about the stress – she’d appear at my bed at 10 pm, often in tears, and crawl into bed with me when she was very anxious. So she was more overt with her stress, while Jess internalised it and it surfaced as anger and irritation.

Be gentle with yourself: It really is a difficult year for parents.  It is so fraught and frenetic that you can’t really take stock of it all and internalise it. When you see your child struggling with the work load, the pressure and stress, and you can’t reach them … I don’t know what’s worse. And on top of all that you’re also coping with a year that is actually a year of loss.

You are so focused on your child but it’s the end of their school career, the end of an era. It is really a year of saying good-bye. The first time you realise you’re losing them is the Matric Dance, when they emerge looking so gorgeous and grown-up. It’s bittersweet.

Maintain a sense of balance: Make sure you have a life! Don’t give up the things you like doing. It’s good for them to see that your life carries on. It’s all about balance … I don’t think I got it right with either of my daughters, but I strived towards it. Swearing in the shower is quite useful …!

Vanessa, Olivia, Charlotte and Jess Kerwin
Vanessa Kerwin with her daughters (from left to right): Jessica, Olivia and Charlotte.

Jess and Charlotte on Matric:

Jess:  I think it’s super-helpful to see a therapist during your Matric year. It helps to speak to someone who is impartial. You need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and set boundaries with your family as to what behaviour is acceptable and what is not! You need to keep perspective as well – after you get your Matric results no one ever asks you about them again! But at the time, it’s huge. I’m getting stressed even talking about it! If you’re not an A student in Matric, it is difficult to recognise that you do have other skills. I advise matriculants to try to make studying as much fun as possible. Surround yourself with the gadgets and things you need to make studying easier.

Charlotte: Matric is such a tricky year. There is all the work and the pressure and anxiety about things like the Matric Dance … and if you’re going to be asked to any of the other dances … I had very high expectations of myself academically. My close friends were all very smart and very competitive, so I felt that pressure to perform as well. It did help that I attended a co-ed school as the boys are definitely more chilled and my wider friendship group was more relaxed. In the end I got the marks I wanted but … One way you can help your child cope with the stress is to sit down and talk about it. They need to trust their abilities and feel confident. I also needed to reasssure my parents that my way of studying (I work best under pressure and tend to leave things to the last minute and then work through the night!) works for me. My mom had to learn to trust that! By the time you write your Mocks you’ve covered all the work. My motto was, “Everything in moderation…”

 Cathy

Cape Town counsellor Cath Rackstraw with her family
Cathy Rackstraw  with her family (from left to right): Emily, husband Paul, Jenny and Andrew.

Pander to their needs: Emotionally, I knew I was going to be at my girls’ beck and call during their respective Matric years. Emily matriculated from St Cyprian’s School last year while Jenny matriculated from Springfield Convent School in 2013. I was happy for it to be a time in my life when I would just pander to their needs so there was absolutely no extra stress on them.

Remain realistic: We all fall into the trap that the Matric exams are all-important and will define all the decisions our children will make in their lives. In reality, it’s not like that at all! While our entire school system is geared towards the Matric finals, we need to take a step back and question this because there are a lot of very successful adults out there who never quite got the marks they wanted in Matric. We need to look at a broader perspective.

Communicate with your children: One way of keeping calm is to keep communication channels with your children open. Ask your child what will be most helpful to them. I felt it was important for my children to have regular breaks and outings. I was always desperate to take them out for lunch or tea … they found it very amusing and both of them declared that I’d never ever invited them out on so many lunch dates as during their Matric finals!

Ask your child what structure they’d like in the house or how you can help them be disciplined or stick to their study goals.

Recently I was chatting to a third-year university student and she said she would’ve loved it had her mother imposed stricter boundaries at home while she was writing her finals. She would’ve been grateful if access to her mobile had been restricted and her study times cast in stone. I found that interesting! I don’t think my girls would have liked that at all 🙂 But it’s all about what structure your child is going to find most helpful.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: Overlook certain things that would normally irritate you to maintain a calm home environment.

It’s all about pampering them, making them feel secure. You know what your child responds to most, what makes them feel special, loved and nurtured. I guess it’s about doing all those things during this time.

Look after yourself, too: Look for practical ways to alleviate your own stress and anxiety. There is so much focus on mindfulness at the moment, and its impact on the brain. If you’re really stressed, this is an opportunity to investigate what it means to be more mindful by consulting a coach or practitioner or downloading a Mindful App. It really is a very useful and pleasant life skill to develop while your child is in Matric!

Manage expectations: The stress I experienced with Emily was different to the stress I had with Jenny. Jenny got into Medicine very early so she didn’t have the stress of not knowing if she’d be accepted or not. With Emily, however, we were managing the stress of the looming Matric finals and the actual writing of the exams with the stress of not knowing whether or not she’d get into Architecture.

Throughout her school career, she was determined to study Architecture. Her heart was in it, she was passionate about it, it was the obvious choice for her … but then she was not accepted during the first intake. This initial rejection forced her to rethink her decision, and what she really wanted to get out of an Architecture degree, and studying it in great detail. As a result, she realised that it wasn’t what she wanted to do at all, and she’s now very happily studying Engineering!

And manage disappointed expectations! So the lesson we all learnt, especially as parents, was how to manage our disappointed expecatations.

The reality is that not everyone is going to get the marks they want, or be accepted into the course of their dreams. As a parent you really have to then focus on your child’s strengths – and get them through something that is potentially deeply disappointing but still with their self-esteem intact.

For our family, it was one of the biggest gifts and a life-changing opportunity for Emily.

Trust the system: From my own experience, I found the anticipation (and perception)  of the Matric finals far worse than the reality! I remember feeling more stressed before they began than during the exams themselves. By the time the children get to the finals they are (mostly!) very well prepared and the challenge then is really how to keep them going as the exams are spread out over a month. You don’t want them to burn out early on … they need to sustain their strength and motivation to the very end!

Sally

Try not to worry: There are no prizes or gains for worrying, whether you’re a teen or a parent.

Trust your teen: Most often they know what needs to be done to achieve their desired result.

Love is all you need: You can’t make a Matric student work, but you can love them through the process and ask them what, if anything, you can do to support them. Find out what is most helpful for them. It might be to stop asking how the studying is going!

You don’t have control over how and when they work, but you do have control over respecting how they would like to be supported.

Keep perspective: Matric is overrated! Yes, we’d like our children to achieve results that enable them to take the right next step, but remind yourself that equally important are the life lessons that can be learnt while navigating Matric. How to manage pressure, achieve balance in life as well as how to manage potential disappointments. These are lifelong learnings that will empower your child for future challenges. It can be hard to keep this perspective. But the truth is, a week after the Matric result are out, no one ever asks about them again!

Don’t focus on the results: Some students struggle academically. The best thing you can do is to help them to discover their unique strengths and help them let go of the singular focus on results which don’t measure character, wholeness or future success.

Ah. What wise words. Thank you so much, Vanessa (and girls), Cathy and Sally! So, fellow Matric Moms, here in a nutshell, is the message:
  1. Keep calm and carry on. It’s the Matric Mom Mantra. Truly!
  2. Be realistic: keep the Matric exams in perspective. Yes, they’re important but the reality is they’re not going to define who your children are for the rest of their days.
  3. Create structure and calm in your home so that your Matric child feel stable and secure.
  4. Feed them! Make their favourite meals, have loads of snacks on hand and stick to regular mealtimes.
  5. Keep calm …. Did I mention that already? The triple M? Carry on with your life, seek the support of friends and manage your own stress so that your anxiety does not affect your child.
  6. Make sure they maintain a balanced life: eat well, sleep well, exercise well.
  7. Reassure, respect and trust your children.
  8. There is nothing more that you can do. Truly!  Revert to point 1.

BEST OF LUCK TO THE MATRICS OF 2017! You can do it.

The PHOTOGRAPH at the top of the post shows my Kate Ella preparing to enter the Matric Guard of Honour, formed by Grade 11s. at the conclusion of the Matric Valedictory Mass in the serene gardens at Springfield Convent School. The girls were led through the Guard of Honour by Springfield Convent School piper Jenna Alexander.  A fitting and beautiful way to end a 14-year school career.

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