A friend with a daughter who will soon start her freshman year of high school asked what advice I have for her to support her daughter. Turns out that I have a lot of advice on ways parents can help kids succeed in high school.
Encourage Healthy Habits, and Make Them Easy
Teenagers are known for thinking they are invincible, and that can lead to some pretty poor choices. You can’t control everything, but you can encourage them to make healthy choices. That runs the gamut, from requiring seatbelts be fastened before turning on the car to eating right.
Junk food tastes good for a moment, but leaves you hungry and without energy soon after. High school, and life, is harder when you’re hangry. Encourage your kids to eat healthy, and make it easy for them to do so by stocking your pantry with food they like that’s good for them. Take them shopping with you. (I’m always amazed at how excited my teen is to go to Costco.)
I confess that I ate far more than my fair share of junk food in high school, but that doesn’t have to be the default. Let them know that splurges are fun on occasion, but not all day, every day.
Model good behavior yourself by eating right, exercising, and practicing self-care. They may be in high school, but kids are still watching their parents, often more closely than you think.
Stress Sufficient Amounts of Sleep
This might be a corollary of the first one, but it’s so important that it merits its own item. Sleep is essential for growing bodies and developing brains. It’s also a key component of good emotional and mental health. And teens get far too little of it. They are crazy busy and stressed. I get it. But prioritizing sleep will lead to better performance in the classroom and in extracurriculars. It also makes teens, and adults, nicer people.
One way to help with this: take their phone at night. Kids are texting literally all night long, and it is harming their sleep and their health. While a central charging spot is good, it’s possible they can get their phone late at night after you’re asleep. Put the charging spot somewhere that they can’t get the phone without disturbing you.
High school teachers can be intimidating, and kids are often quick to adopt a me vs. them mentality. Encourage your kids to rethink that narrative. Teachers, including the stern and even mean ones, did not go into the field to torment adolescents. They don’t want kids to fail. On the contrary, they hope to see them succeed. Encourage kids to ask questions and seek additional help if needed.
Chances are their high school offers extra help. Know when that is and make it easy for your kid to go, whether that’s driving them to school early, packing lunch they can eat quickly and then hit a help session, or making it easy for them to get home if they have to stay after school.
Watch the way you talk about their teachers, even when you think they aren’t listening. They pick up on both your vibes and what you’re saying. If you want them to stay positive, you should do so, too.
Leave Time for Fun
Dr. William Stixrud, author of the Self-Driven Child, says that homework isn’t worth ruining your relationship with your child. It feels like high stakes are part of high school, but you can dial it down a notch, or several. Take a step back and think about your role as a parent.
You want to encourage your kid to do her best, of course, but you also want to be her soft place to land. Leave time for fun together. You may need to schedule it, and that’s fine.
Outings like a quick trip to the coffee shop or an hour on a weekend morning for hiking in a park or walking the dog together (which also keeps them active and encourages the healthy habits addressed above) can be hugely important, both for your relationship and for their well-being.
Learning balance is an important part of success. Chances are you’ll both remember the inside jokes, impromptu kitchen dance party, or silly game more than the hours spent doing homework.
Hug your kids. (Caveat: Not all kids love hugs. If that’s the case in your house, come up with a different action, whether it’s a fist bump, high five, “I love you” in sign language, whatever works.) Send quick text messages of encouragement. Make or get their favorite meal or treat on a big day.
High school can be tough. Knowing that they have a parent who is on their side and loves them is hugely important, even if kids don’t want to ever let you know that’s the case.
Ask More, Judge Less
Chances are that with new friends, new activities, and a new schedule, your mind will be racing about some of their choices and you’ll be doing some judging. You’re human. But try to keep those judgments to yourself unless of course you are worried about your child’s safety.
Questions get your kid thinking, whereas judgments often get kids just digging in their heels.
Don’t criticize the new friend, but ask a lot of questions about that person, why your child enjoys his or her company, what benefits they get from the friendship, etc. Wondering why they haven’t started that paper yet? Say you wanted to get an idea of the family schedule for the day/week and what do they need time to do. Phrases like “I’m wondering” and “I’m curious” and “Can you tell me more about X” can work well.
You may not spur the exact action you want immediately, and there may be unpleasant consequences, but it’s also possible a few well-placed questions asked without judgment may shift their perspective in a different direction.
Be the Parent
I know that we’re raising adults, but the fact is that our kids are not adults yet. They’re kids. There are valid reasons they cannot vote or legally drink.
Yes, they should be learning life skills, but that’s in addition to a mastering rigorous high school curriculum, navigating a complicated social scene, understanding changing bodies, managing peer pressure, and so much else. With all that going on, they need parents. So be one.
Set boundaries, have expectations, know your mandate.
I feel like this is the stage when a lot of parents shift to being friends with their kids. Your kids have friends. They don’t have a lot of parents. They have you.
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