When my eldest daughter started high school, I could see she was struggling with new emotional stressors: individuating from old friends while making new friends, juggling extracurriculars and the logistical pressures that come with navigating a new school. But I didn’t always know how to help her through these transitions.
How can parents help their teen during the high school transition?
During this time, Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Ahaparenting.com and author of three parenting books, recommends that parents think of themselves as a supportive coach that listens and asks questions from the field’s sidelines. Research shows that teens who have a parent who listens to them at home are less stressed and more emotionally healthy, says Markham. She notes that it’s best to react with calmness and listen, as opposed to over-reacting or trying to solve problems for your child, which will only add to their stress.
“Communicate that you understand the weight of their issue while conveying your confidence in them to find their own solution,” says Markham. “I started putting my hand over my mouth while nodding when my eldest needed me to listen instead of reacting. Then I’d say, ‘Wow, no wonder you’re worried. I wonder what you could do now to make things better?'”
Here are her insights about what your new high schooler is most worried about and how parents can help them navigate these potentially stressful situations.
“Who will I hang out with?” It will help your child feel more secure if they reach out to old friends from middle school to arrange travel to the new high school, or to meet up for lunch that first day or week. But encourage them to also look for opportunities to get to know new friends. Would they like to invite their new lab partner home for a study session? Or go out for pizza after soccer with someone on their new team?
“How will I find my way around?” The fear of navigating a new space and schedule is real. Have them pull up a map of the school and their schedule and talk with them about how to plan their day so they can make it to their locker and still get to class on time. After school starts, check in with them about how their new routine is working, giving them a chance to problem solve out loud.
“How will I keep up with everything?” With so much on their plate, it’s important to set some parameters for extracurricular activities. For example, you might say, “You must do something physical each semester,” but let them decide what that activity will be. If they make a case for quitting piano, support their right to make that decision, while nudging them to try something new. Extracurricular activities are opportunities for teens to make new friends and find new passions. They also provide a group identity and connection during the regular school day: Those hellos from new acquaintances as your teen walks the school hallways do matter.
Overall, the best advice is this: “Parents aren’t withdrawing support from their students, they’re taking a step back and offering a different kind of support,” says Markham. Wise words to remember.
Seattleite Nancy Schatz Alton is an author, teacher, poet and frequent contributor to Your Teen magazine at www.YourTeenMag.com.