LeapSkills: Parent Edition
1 June 2020
There is no special study module for learning to be a university GP, but if there was, then several lectures would definitely have to cover ‘Flatmate Related Issues’. I have lost count (in over 20 years as a GP) of how many students I saw because they were struggling with, or causing concern to, their co-habiting peers. The common stress caused by living with someone else’s noise, mess, obnoxious behaviour, or unofficial ‘live-in lover’, was matched only by the occasional distress caused by living with a flatmate’s spiralling mental health problems. There is no doubt that when young adults leave home and start living with other young adults (often strangers) interesting and sometimes difficult situations can arise.
Some students were driven to distraction by others’ musical practice sessions, or by their habit of eating food that did not belong to them (midnight ‘munchies’ were usually to blame), but others had to deal with much more significant challenges. I remember one young undergraduate who regularly set fire to her bin, or self-harmed in the shared bathroom, which required her flatmates to essentially take on a ‘carer’ role, before they sought more professional intervention to support them all. One young man, who was in the early stages of developing bipolar disorder, was brought to see me when his flatmates found him wandering down the street naked. They had noticed other unusual behaviour too, but that was the final straw apparently! And it is not uncommon for students look after their flatmates’ medication for them, or be trained to use EpiPen injections in case of a severe allergic reaction. Living with others is not always straightforward; it can be great fun, but it can also be tough, and require tolerance, resilience and kindness to do so harmoniously. Students often become each other’s ‘uni family’; supportive, loyal and there for each other when they need it most.
In my honest experience, students have a huge capacity for compassion for their peers, and care enormously both in emotional and practical terms, for them. It is important to balance the somewhat dramatic scenarios above with the much more common relationships which develop in shared accommodation, of course, with students sharing social and academic lives, supporting each other, bickering, swapping clothes, cooking, revising and growing up together.
Parents who are reading this may feel a little worried, and it would be natural to hope that your own young adult would find themselves in a relatively uncomplicated house-share, of course. Parents and carers will undoubtedly have had conversations about ‘how to be a good flatmate’, and ‘what to do if you are worried about a fellow student’. But just in case you need a bit of extra help- there is good news!
Not only have I co-written a guide to help all parents to support their young adult to develop the life skills to survive and thrive independently ( How to Grow a Grown Up (PenguinRandomHouse) , which I co-wrote with Fabienne Vailes), but Unite Students have now developed a brilliant new online resource for parents and carers called Leapskills.
Its aim is to help families provide a ‘safety net’ as their young person makes the ‘leap’ from home to university, and as they transition from living at home to living independently, often in shared accommodation.
The new Unite Students Leapskills toolkit is an interactive approach to preparing for the ups and downs of communal living. It employs an engaging online game to create a ‘dress rehearsal’ for living with strangers. Parents and their teenagers can play out the different scenarios, take chances with deciding on strategies to deal with the challenges, and learn together about how best to deal with messy, upset or noisy flatmates.
This fun gamified approach is a safe way to try out having difficult conversations, or navigating new relationships, using the 4 student avatars (Advik, Mel, Jake and Kaya) created especially for the resource.
The learning feels chatty, friendly and accessible (not stressful), and allows parents and young adults to have a relaxed discussion together , about any tricky situations that might arise. The Leapskills toolkit ‘starts a conversation’ rather than telling students what to think or do. Soon-to-be students can ‘meet’ the 4 avatar flatmates and test out how they might react in a variety of (very realistic) accommodation scenarios. It’s a safe way to ‘meet’ people who are ‘not like you’, and is an opportunity not to be missed. It may also allow a gentle ‘way in’ to discuss potentially more complex scenarios like those described above.
There is no right or wrong way for families to prepare their children and young adults to leave home. Every teenager is, of course, unique, and will need varying amounts of advice and ongoing support, but the good news is that parents and carers are no longer alone in having to work out what to do, how involved to be, or what to say when their student hits an inevitable bump in the road.
Those of us who have spent decades working with students, caring for them, and helping them to succeed independently, are more than happy to share our experience and knowledge with the next generation of parents. My How to Grow a Grown Up book will answer almost all the questions parents might have about raising independent and resilient young adults, as well as how best to provide ongoing support when they leave home, and the Leapskills toolkit will provide an additional but essential digital option for those who need specific inspiration for building their teen’s life skills for successful communal living.
It’s the closest thing to a ‘Flatmate Related Issues’ module for all, to ensure you sleep more easily at night!