Get set for senior cycle: Lay off the nagging but lay on the healthy food

Students in fifth and sixth year need the right support from their parents

It’s two weeks into the new school year and parents of fifth- and sixth-year students – never mind the teenagers themselves – are only too aware that the countdown has started.

There are only 150 school days to the first paper of the 2016 Leaving Certificate exam, give or take holy, teacher-training and whatever-you’re-having yourself days; double that if your child is not sitting it until 2017.

But the last thing students need is parents caught up in the stress. You know the type – so involved that they will be praying nightly that Durcan and Dickinson come up in the poetry section of honours English . . .

At this stage, students really don't need parents joining in the chorus that they are getting from every teacher in every class, says Tricia Purcell of the youth information website


However, parental support for teenagers is vital. Adolescence is already a difficult time, never mind the added pressures of impending exams and deciding what they want to do after the only existence they’ve known; attending school nine months of the year.

So, looking at various aspects of life in the senior cycle at secondary school, what can parents do?

Mental health

Adolescents are finding themselves, establishing their own identity, separating from their parents and also have “all the hormones going on”, says

Angela Walsh

, programme manager for Willow Grove Adolescent Services at

St Patrick's Hospital

in Dublin.

“You are going to get a lot of moodiness from teenagers, angry outbursts and pulling away from parents, so it can be quite difficult to know what’s normal teenage behaviour and when it becomes a mental health issue.”

The most important thing is to keep lines of communication open, continuously checking in with them “even though they might be totally doing your head in. It’s that persistence; that they know you are there and that you have their back.”

Look for signs that are out of the ordinary: a teenager being more withdrawn than usual; spending more time in their room; not meeting friends; struggling with homework; changed eating and sleeping habits.

“What we would say to parents is trust your gut instinct and try to drill down a little bit and see what’s going on,” says Walsh.

Young people might have a sense that something’s not quite right but don’t want to say it. “It is about giving them opportunities to talk,” she advises. Look for the chance to chat in the most ordinary of situations rather than putting them under pressure by sitting them down to have a deep and meaningful talk.

If a parent is concerned, check with the school first and see if they have noticed anything.

“Schools are much more aware of mental health issues than they would have been in the past. So maybe just a phone call to the year head to ask them to keep an eye out or have they noticed anything.”

If you have a chat with your child and she says she’s feeling low or not feeling well, the next step is to go to the GP.

If the pressure is becoming too much, parents may notice their teenagers are more negative than usual, and small things that weren’t previously an issue are becoming more of a problem, says Tricia Purcell of

If they identify specific issues, she adds, it is helpful if parents can sit down with them to devise an action plan, “enabling the young person to feel they can handle it and take it on”.

Career choice

Working towards a chosen college course can be stressful but it’s much more difficult if you still don’t know how to answer the perennial question: “What do you want to do when you leave school?”

Encourage teenagers to reflect on what activities and interests make them feel most alive, says guidance counsellor Dearbhla Kelly, author of the new book Career Choice. They should also ask themselves in what environment they feel happiest.

“When you love what you do, you excel at it and people want you for it,” she points out.

Asking a teenager what they want to do for the rest of their lives can be pressurising. Instead, focus on the next step – applying for college or an apprenticeship, or taking a year out to try to find their niche.

Teenagers don’t always know their own strengths, so point out what they’re good at. They should also talk to people working in jobs that they are interested in.

“Sometimes the focus can be very much on ‘I’ve got to study, I’ve got to get the points and I don’t have time to look at all that.’ But making time is so important,” Kelly adds.

Boost confidence

Your teenagers may seem intent on tearing you down but it is important that you continue to try to build them up.

Praise their effort and praise their application, says Kelly. “Find the gold in them,” whether they are good with people, at solving problems, or organising themselves.

“Say it as you see it and link it into their future coping strategies or future success – ‘You have a great attitude, that’s what employers are looking for’.”

Highlight, too, the value of dedication and persistence – even for backdoor routes to their chosen field of work. And value the skills of a practical child, she stresses, just as much as the academic abilities of one who is going to get 500 points.

Encouraging them to step out of their comfort zone and to do more things for themselves will also increase their confidence.

In the home

Get the home environment right from the start and make sure they have a quiet place of their own to study.

“They might learn best with earphones; respect their wishes,” says Kelly, “or in a messy space; respect their space.”

Negotiate a routine. “Try to give space and not to be overbearing or overly anxious.”

Having ready supplies of nutritious food is also important – preferably the moment they walk in the door “starving”.

“Parents are responsible for foods that come into the house,” says dietitian Aveen Bannon. But “teens should become responsible for the foods they eat and choices they make. A parent’s role is to guide them towards healthier choices.

“Always ensure your teen has a good breakfast before heading off to school – preferably one that includes carbohydrate, protein and some calcium.” It can be a good idea to have a list of healthy breakfast, lunch and snack options in the kitchen as easy reference for your teen.

“Ensure they have healthy, non-perishable snacks – for example nuts, trail mix, crackers, and so on – with them for sports or after-school study so they don’t get hungry and seek less healthy options.” Key nutrients to focus on are calcium, iron and vitamin D.

“About 80 per cent of bone formation takes place by the age of 17-18 years so calcium intake is of key importance and vitamin D is required to help absorb calcium. Choosing low-fat milk, yogurts, cheese, tinned fish and tofu are all good ways of boosting calcium intake.”

Bannon recommends a vitamin D supplement for teens, “as we do not absorb vitamin D from the sun in winter months”.

Meanwhile, lean red meat, dark green vegetables, beans and pulses are the best dietary sources of iron.

Work-life balance

Only you will know if your teenager needs help to get into a good routine of study, recreation and rest. But don’t rush in to prescribe; see if they can work it out themselves.

Don’t presume that cutting back on extra-curricular activities will benefit their studies; it may have an adverse effect.

An ERSI study, Participation in School Sport and Post-School Pathways, published last May, found: "Students who participate in sport in their final years of second-level school are significantly and substantially more likely to continue their formal education after leaving school."

Parents can safely presume that teachers are piling on homework and stressing the need to study, so there’s no need for more of the same at home.

It is very important, says Purcell, for students to keep the balance between all that’s going on, and friendships, and having an existence outside school – “especially when it comes to mental health”.

Regard your teenager hanging out with friends not as a waste of time but a vital safety valve. “They are the ones,” adds Purcell, “who know what is going on, and they can be really supportive.”


Keep in touch with your child’s school and attend relevant talks and parent-teacher meetings. If you have any concerns, do make contact.

"Communication should be a two-way process," stresses Don Myers, president of the National Parents' Council Post-Primary.

Parents should check what guidance counselling and career advice the school offers, says Purcell, because this varies. They may presume their child will be taught about the CAO but that’s not always the case.

“Parents may have to be a bit more proactive about this side of things,” she adds, “as their children already have a lot on their plate.”

Career Coach: A Step-by-step Guide to Help Your Teen Find their Life's Purpose by Dearbhla Kelly is published by Gill & MacMillan, €14.99.

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting