How are you feeling about school starting up? If you’re like most of the families I’ve been talking with, you may have felt like the summer has gone relatively smooth and your child has seemed happier and less stressed overall. You may also be concerned about the start of school and how this added stress will impact your child and family.
It’s safe to say, the first week will go well and perhaps the second. But when things start ramping up well…
When it comes to problems and challenges, our best defense is a good offense. I th
nk it’s essential to have conversations ahead of time about school with your child. The more you can realistically expect and anticipate the hurdles that await, the more likely you’ll be to clear them successfully. Or at least not be surprised, “woops, there’s that hurdle we talked about, we knew it would be there but perhaps we misjudged how high it would be.”
To be clear, your teen would rather take a bath in hot oil then have a conversation with you about some of the challenging aspects of school. They’d rather not think about it and are hoping you’ll settle with “fine” or the thoroughly unconvincing “I’m gonna do better this year”. You may be avoiding this as well because you don’t enjoy arguing or being stonewalled.
The most important way we support adolescents is by helping them develop their immature prefrontal cortex. This is the part of their brain that is involved with planning, judgement and regulating emotions. These are skills that they’re not expected to be good at yet. This isn’t because they don’t care or aren’t trying, they literally can’t do it with any consistency. An important way we can help them strengthen these skills is by insisting on conversations that require them to think ahead and reflect. Writing out their thoughts or talking to another trusted adult can help too.
So insist on a conversation about the upcoming school year. Let them choose the time and place. Below are some suggestions to help you make this conversation go smooth(er).
1. Make sure you’re calm and casual about it. Put your feet up, don’t stare at them, relax your face and body. This will put your child at ease and make them more receptive.
2. Focus on asking questions and staying curious, then really listen. Your child is expecting, in a worried/stressed tone something like, “this year needs to be better then last year, I don’t want you…if that happens we’re gonna have to…I know you can do the work…you say you want to go to college…I want you to…LECTURE. LECTURE. TALKING. TALKING. TALKING. This is the experience that many kids have of their well-intentioned and often long winded parents.
3. Encourage them to think of solutions. I have no doubt that your solutions will be better than theirs. But they’re your solutions. If your kiddo can’t think of any ideas then, well now you know what they need to work on. You can give them a few ideas but then let them think about it and follow up later. They’re more likely to follow through if they have buy in and contributed to the solution.
4. Emphasize their strengths and the positive things they’ve accomplished last year and this summer. A lot of teens I talk to get super discouraged because they remember all their mistakes and forget any and all of their successes. As humans, we’re motivated by positive, not negative, reinforcement.
5. Address the following questions:
What are you most looking forward to?
What do you think will be the hardest part?
What do you think will be helpful for you this year?
What do you think you’ll need to be careful about?
Based on last year, what have I done/not done that’s been helpful?
What’s something I’ve done that’s annoying or not helpful?
How can I help going forward?
6. Acknowledge their effort in the moment.No matter how it goes, let them know you appreciate their willingness to sit with you (even if it’s just for a couple minutes) and have a conversation you know they don’t want to have. Let them know that you’d like to continue the conversation later.
Be prepared to have this conversation in small chunks over time. To use a baseball analogy, you’re probably not going to hit a home run (though you might). You’re more likely to win the game if you focus on singles and doubles. If you get on base 40% of the time over your career you’ll be in the hall of fame.
School is understandably stressful for most teens. Many kids don’t feel that what they’re learning is relevant to their lives. They may be bored or overwhelmed. They want to do well but are tired of being reminded how “smart and capable” they are or “just apply yourself”, “turn in your assignments”, “don’t spend so much time online”. All of this is easier said than done when the part of their brain they need the most is underperforming. Combine that with unaddressed anxiety or depression and it’s easy to get demoralized quickly.
There’s no better time than now to evolve the culture your family has around school. A culture that revolves around curiosity, reflection, problem solving and loving communication. If you lead the way, I know your teen will follow.