The start of a new school year is fast approaching. For many teens this will be the year they enter high school. Yep, that little boy or girl that you saw off for the first day of kindergarten, which seemed like only a few years ago, is headed to the ‘Big Leagues’, going ‘To The Show’, about to ‘Play In The Big Sand Box’ as these things are sometimes expressed. (Well, the Big Sand Box is not a real saying, I made that up, but it sounds pretty good).
This is an exciting time that presents challenges for teens as well as their parents. How so?
Your son, or daughter, is entering a completely new environment replete with greater academic and social pressures. The weight of these demands is then magnified by the raging hormones and crippling self-consciousness characteristic of the adolescent years.
High schoolers also face academic challenges unlike those to which they have previously been exposed (for example, consider the pressure of final exams, honors courses, and college applications).
Additionally, the social pressures teens face in high school involve higher stakes than those of past years – from the peer pressure to drink, or use drugs, be promiscuous, or the cliques and bullying that are rampant during this time in life.
On top of that, there is the overall stress that comes with attempting to balance academics, extracurriculars, a social life, and life at home.
Put this all together and you get a chapter in life that has extraordinary highs, and breathtaking lows. Sometimes these highs and lows occur all within the same day. A bit of a roller coaster ride for many teens.
As the parent of a teen, you are in the unique position to help your youngster transition into high school and be better prepared for the challenges that he/she will face. Helping your teen prepare for high school also helps you, as the smoother your child’s high school experience, the less stress and angst they will bring home.
With some preparation – such as the strategies below – and continuous investment in your relationship with your teen, the challenges of the high school years can become an opportunity for tremendous growth and maturation.
So, what can you do to help as your child prepares to enter high school? Here are five areas to invest your efforts into that will provide a big payoff.
ONE: Attend orientation night with your teen. Yes, we'll start with the simplest and easiest thing you can do – yet it often gets overlooked by busy parents. Attend orientation night.
Most high schools offer some sort of “This is high school, it’s tough, you’ll get used to it, so deal with it” introduction. The idea is to help parents and students lose all hope. No, just kidding. The goal is to answer questions and get everyone started on the right foot.
Well worth attending. But be forewarned that your teen may dread this event – after all, attending orientation might mean they have to interact with strangers, admit that they are entering a new and vulnerable situation, and (worst of all) be seen in public with their parents (that would be you – don’t be offended, this is only the first of many times that your mere presence will be found mortifying to your teen).
In spite of this, it is worth it for both of you to attend the event, as it will allow your child to meet teachers and fellow students, learn about the campus and the class schedules, and feel more prepared on their first day of school.
TWO: Take your teen on a tour of the school. The high school may offer a tour as part of orientation, but if not, the administration should be happy to find someone who can give you and your student a tour of the campus upon request.
If that’s not feasible, you can always stop by the campus with your student and locate the major buildings (gymnasium, science labs, cafeteria, main office, etc.).
The first day of school can be disorienting for the anxious teen. This can be minimized, however, if your child already has an idea of where his/her classrooms are located. That stability will help your student’s high school experience get off to a good start.
No one wants to be seen as the newbie who cannot find their way to their next class. Make sure your child has walked the campus and knows where his/her classrooms are located. Of course, if the high school is large, your teen will also need a campus map.
THREE: Get your teen involved in at least one club or sport. There are many benefits for a teen to engage in extracurriculars, but one of the most important is that is allows the youngster an easy way to make friends and develop of sense of community and belonging. Within the right group, having this sense of community and acceptance can act as a protective barrier to peer pressure from outside of that group.
Additionally, it will provide challenges for your student and allow him/her to develop skills that might otherwise go untapped. Research shows that children who engage in extracurricular activities at school tend to earn higher grades, develop higher academic aspirations and have a more positive attitude toward school.
It’s important, however, to get your teen involved in a club/sport that will be a good fit for their talents and personality. For example, your high-energy and sports-loving student might do better on the basketball team than in the theater club. On the other hand, a student who is not athletic but is very analytical will likely do better in the chess club than on the wrestling team.
FOUR: Talk to your teen about peer pressure. This should not be a “one and done” talk, but an ongoing, open discussion that is revisited often throughout the high school years. Discuss some of the pressures your teen may face and have him, or her, consider how to respond.
It is best to use specific examples (such as being pressured to take drugs, or to skip class, or bully other students/stay silent when witnessing bullying, etc.).
Mentioning the peer pressure you faced as a teen may help your child see you as someone who knows what they are talking about. (OK, that’s a long shot because you are, after all, a parent which means your teen thinks you know next to nothing – even so, it’s worth a shot).
If your child is willing, have him/her role-play appropriate responses to various forms of peer pressure. It is one thing to talk through how to respond, but another thing entirely to put a response into action. Practice helps.
Think about it this way, there is a good reason athletes, musicians, surgeons, welders, artists and others don’t simply talk about their craft and think their performance will improve. Each of them knows they need to practice their skills. It’s the same with the skills required for responding effectively to peer pressure.
Many teens will be embarrassed at the idea of role modeling with their mother or father. On the other hand, once you get them started they are likely to be hugely amused by watching their parent pretend to be another teen who is peer pressuring them to make negative choices. A true bonding moment!
FIVE: Open up a discussion about social media, the constant comparisons social media encourages, and how hard this can be on anyone’s self-esteem. Teens are using social media more than ever before, and coupled with the insecurities that plague the teen years, the challenge to compare oneself with peers can be overwhelming.
Research is gradually building that suggests social media use has a profoundly negative impact on many teens. The average American teen spends hours each day on various social media platforms, seeing images and posts that portray their peers as constantly happy, successful, popular, social, and attractive. What they likely don’t realize is that social media is a highlight reel, where people are putting out only the best and most picture-perfect parts of their lives.
Talking with teens about the difference between reality, and what is portrayed on social media, can be immensely helpful. These sorts of candid talks provide a measure of inoculation against the pressure to base one’s self-worth on the curated images of their peers.
Just as it was the case when talking to your teen about peer pressure, discussing the impact of social media should be an ongoing and open conversation. Most teens will be more responsive if you begin by acknowledging the attractive attributes of social media. This makes you come across as fair and level headed.
The primary message you want to drive home, however, is that your son or daughter’s worth should not be based on how they are perceived by others. In particular, that it is unwise to compare yourself to anyone else’s carefully-curated (and highly unrealistic) highlight reels.
Although high school is a time with unique and painful challenges for students and parents alike, it is also ripe with opportunity for healthy growth and development from child to adult. As a parent you may be called upon to develop new skills to stay connected with and constructively guide your adolescent son or daughter. Likewise your teen will need to develop new skills to meet the challenges ahead.
Here is the big pay off. Teens who successfully navigate the high school years are much more likely to experience a successful transition into adulthood as well. By following the above suggestions you can help your son or daughter get their high school career started off on the right foot. This, in turn, will give them a better opportunity to meet the inevitable challenges of high school and emerge stronger and wiser, ready for the next chapter in life.