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Book review: How to Grow a Grown Up

This book offers a useful reference manual for the specific issues commonly encountered, but it’s also a fascinating encapsulation of the complex world we live in now. As such, it’s a good read whether you’re a parent, grandparent, carer, or, importantly, a practising GP who may be asked for advice by parents, or consult directly with these young people.

Societal, financial, cultural and peer pressures constantly bombard our young people, these soon-to-be-adults. Parents cannot possibly protect them from every life stress, however much they may want to. But is that desire to ‘protect’ sometimes counterproductive to their development?

The parental urge to nurture and protect can be at odds with a teenager’s in-built need to test boundaries, act out, and explore for themselves. That’s nothing new.

But the pressures on young people now ARE different to those experienced by previous generations. These 21st Century young people are ‘always on’. They live in a ruthless and competitive world (real and virtual) – even sewing is a TV competition now.

The global pandemic has now complicated everything, and its legacy will impact young people for many years to come. So how can parents help their teenagers navigate this challenging stage in their development?

This excellent book by GP Dr Dominique Thompson and Fabienne Vailes offers sage and practical advice with good humour, and much honesty about the complexity of everyday life as it is now for our young people.

The pandemic’s legacy will impact young people for many years to come

Stemming from good intentions, parents can accidentally overprotect their teenagers, by striving to mitigate all life’s risks, while also pushing them hard to ‘achieve’ – so as increase their prospects of ‘success’, whatever success may be. But at what cost to the mental wellbeing of these soon-to-be grown-ups?

Evidence shows that an increasingly high proportion of our young people are suffering psychologically. The impact of Covid-19 and prolonged lockdown has undoubtedly compounded the situation, causing social isolation in young people just when it’s arguably most damaging to their mental wellbeing.

The five sections can easily be dipped into in a targeted way – society’s culture shift; tech life; social life; flying the nest; and an excellent large section on mental health and wellbeing.

In her time as a university health centre GP, Dr Thompson conducted over 78,000 consultations with students, and thus her knowledge and experience in the mental health of young people leaps out from the pages. The section on mental health is grounded in sensible theory with really helpful explanations for parents who may not have the language or confidence to discuss mental heath with their children.

It’s practical, and explains well the impact of perfectionism and academic pressures, as well as setting out the symptoms and signs of various forms of mental distress, including self-harm, to help parents understand what they’re observing.

Importantly, it also provides clear and practical advice on managing the crises, from a distance, as well as those unfolding at home. Universities vary in the support they offer to students, and this book equips parents to play their part effectively, even when physically apart.

Thinking point and parenting pointers in text boxes offer stimulus to discuss and debate themes, and there’s useful emphasis throughout the book on the importance of sleep, human connection, and creating a ‘safe relationship’ in which young people can open up, verbalise and share their difficulties.

The authors give everyday language to the experiences and struggles of teenagers that they can find difficult to put into words themselves. The no-nonsense explanations of self-harm, suicide risk and how to manage a crisis are confidence-building to read.

By placing the young person’s needs, and the parents’ aspiration to support them, on a level playing field, this book cleverly avoids the top-down preachy style of some parenting guides, instead offering a different model. One of appreciative enquiry, of journeying together with appropriate emphasis on responsibility for self, and enabling autonomy where it’s safe, while providing sound strategies for when there are more serious, or emergency, concerns.

I feel every GP surgery and parent should have a copy to hand.

Dr Lucy Henshall is a portfolio GP in Suffolk 

How to Grow a Grown Up by Dr Dominique Thompson and Fabienne Vailes is published by Vermilion (PenguinRandomHouse).

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