Sweaty palms and jangled nerves.
Anxiety about navigating a new world.
Intense desires to fit in.
Frenzied fears they won't.
That's the emotional terrain most teens traverse as they make their way across the wide expanse from elementary to high school.
It's a sizable transition by all accounts -- social, psychological, academic and physical. The rub is that the transition needs to be experienced... your teen can't really prepare for it. But as parents, you can help along the way.
That's why this posts offers guidance on the 5 most relevant and fraught topics your freshman (or freshwoman) will continually face as he or she evolves from an incoming 9th grader to bona fide high schooler. They are, in no particular order:
1. Drinking and drugs
2. Making friends
3. Academic expectations
4. Romantic relationships
5. The digital domain
One caveat: There are no magic solutions or established protocols that will work for every teen in every family. What's essential is that as parents, you understand your own feelings about these high-stakes high school hurdles. That enables you to make intentional decisions based on your values - and the outcome you want for your child. Then you articulate them again... and again.
Let's talk teens.
1. Drinking and drugs.
Personally, my values are that teenagers should not drink or take drugs. My (now grown) kids knew this because I told them - early and often. And the more they heard me say it, the more it was in their head when they were faced with that choice.
Unlike my teenagers, I had the parental gift of perspective and insight, so I shared my knowledge about drugs and alcohol with them, especially regarding the:
• Difference of the alcohol levels in beer vs. spirits
• Implications of mixing uppers (like red bull) with downers (alcohol)
• Difference of the effects of drinking on a 200-pound boy vs. a 100-pound girl
• Legal consequences of drinking or taking drugs on school property
• Legal consequences of driving while under the influence
• Legal implications for me if minors drank in my home
Granted, my telling them all these things didn't prohibit my children from making their own choices (good and bad), but they absolutely knew what the pitfalls and consequences could be.
Most important, we always had a plan in the event their decisions turned out badly. My kids knew they could call me at any time if they needed a ride. And if they texted me the phrase "911," that was code for me to rescue them while they could still save face with their friends.
2. Making friends.
The headline? Play dates are over.
In elementary school you had some say - or at least sway - over your kids' friends. But in high school, who your teen befriends is no longer up to you.
Big changes are afoot socially. Eighth-graders who were on top of the food chain just 12 weeks prior now find themselves at the bottom. Fueled by a desire to fit in and be accepted, most teens find themselves in wholly new territory.
High school is a great time to explore new friendships. It's a time to try on different personalities, and maybe even re-invent oneself entirely. While I can relate to the desire for your special frosh to meet and hang out with other "good" kids, their reinvention might just look cockeyed from your point of view. My advice? Let them be.
It's actually okay to be a little permissive if your teen explores in arenas that aren't mortally threatening (Goth dress or unconventional hair color, for example). If their choices are discordant with your family's values, then of course it's time to step in and make your values known - again. Outside of that, try not to be authoritative in this arena.
The bottom line? Kids need to work out their friendship and relationship issues on their own unless you're specifically asked. Then you may share these five ideas with your frosh. Otherwise, provide support, empathy and insight, but don't interfere.
3. Academic expectations
The academic divide between grade school and high school can be daunting. More is expected of high school students. And there is less hand-holding by teachers (and there should be less hand-holding by parents!)
It is difficult to stay out of the way and not help or rescue your child as they struggle with this transition. Do your best to let your son or daughter navigate the new academic demands and manage relationships with their teachers. Be empathic to their struggles, while you help them advocate for themselves.
I appreciate the difficulty of watching a child struggle and resisting the urge to fix the problem. By all means, listen to their concerns and help them uncover ways to approach the problem. And provide a reality check for an anxious teen who can't fathom recovering from a poor grade.
But when we get overly engaged, it disempowers our children and sends the message that we don't think they can handle the challenges they face. If we want to build resilient, confident kids, we have to let them deal with these situations, and learn that they can, indeed, figure out their academic problems and do well. Here are some tips worth passing on:
• Encourage them to build relationships with their teachers and regularly check in with them on their progress
• Take advantage of in-school resources like writing labs, National Honor Society tutoring, and mentorship opportunities
• Identify a go-to person in each class (may not always be a friend) that can be relied upon to provide notes or a heads-up about missed assignment after an absence
In a very real sense, your teen's mastery of the challenges of high school academics are the 21st century skills they'll need for post-graduation work and their college career.
4. Romantic relationships
Just like with drinking and drugs, I didn't tell my kids how I felt about teens and sex in one big talk prior to high school. I shared my values with them over and over again. And I assure you, they weren't always receptive to these conversations.
If you're not comfortable talking about sex with your kids, get help getting there. Your kids need to know your values about love and sex. Not telling them is a missed opportunity to spark a dialogue. It may not happen in the moment, but if your teens hear you speak naturally and often about typically taboo or uncomfortable topics, it's more likely they'll see you as someone with whom they can discuss these issues.
If your kid is the one who is uncomfortable having that conversation with you, give them a great sex-ed book or two. Do not let them construct the narrative about healthy sexuality exclusively from the Internet and their friends.
Just like with alcohol and drugs, as parents we ought to share essential info with our teens:
• The efficacy of various birth control methods - and access to them if you're comfortable with that
• Dangers of sexually transmitted disease
• Importance of consent and being a respectful partner
• Issues around sexual orientation and acceptance
• Emotional attachment as a consequences of sex
• Impact of drugs/alcohol on decision-making and sex
And with young women 16 to 24 experiencing the highest rates of rape, sexual assault and stalking, teens need to know how to take action if any of these occur.
Sharing my values about sex may not have always led to the outcomes I personally wanted for my kids, but it did lead to learning opportunities for them, as well as conversations by which they could begin to establish their personal values about sex and relationships. I call that a win.
5. The digital domain
When even the youngest of the current crop of parents were in high school, tweeting, sexting, texting and social media were unimaginable. Today, it's the world in which we live... and around which your teens' lives will forever revolve.
Talk with your teens about what is appropriate to view online and what is appropriate to share online. They do not know this innately, and therefore are more vulnerable to predators and other severe consequences.
It's especially important that teens understands several things about their digital footprints:
• The acronym "www" stands for worldwide web, which is exactly how far their posts travel
• There is no privacy on the web; everything posted is officially on the record -potentially for all time
• Unflattering digital exposure can be easily viewed by college admissions officers and future employers who aren't above relinquishing offers based on what they see online
While the idea may be a tough sell to a 14-year-old, talk regularly about how you practice social media professionalism and point out examples of social media gone wrong whenever you see it.
Well, there you have my 5 pieces of advice for parents of high school freshman.
Here's a bonus piece of Intel: If you do not want to be one of those parents freaking out because your incoming college freshman isn't ready for university life, begin their preparation today.
Do not handicap your high school freshman by protecting them from failing. Do not handicap them by interfering with every decision they make. Let them stumble... or even fail.
As educational reformer John Dewey insisted, failure could be as essential to learning as succeeding. Your job is to give your teen every opportunity there is to practice self-reliance and problem solving in high school. The best you have to offer is your support, validation and empathy as they do the hard work of growing up.
One final note: While I consider myself a parenting expert, it's been more than a few years since I crossed the threshold into high school for the first time. So if your kids seriously tune you out - or if you sense they'll be more responsive to hearing about high school from someone born in the 21st century - here's some advice from the pros - high school sophomores! Their recommendations aren't half-bad.
Want FREE parenting advice? Email and ask me a parenting question.