There’s a picture currently going viral; a simple sign taped to the door of a school in Arkansas. It reads, “Stop! If you are dropping off your son’s forgotten lunch, books, homework, equipment etc., please TURN AROUND and exit the building. Your son will learn to problem-solve in your absence.” While extremely blunt, the sign accurately summarizes a growing frustration in education: the saturation of overly-involved high school parents. These parents regularly meddle in, fix, engineer and master-mind their teens’ daily lives. They intercept teachable moments from the hands of their children thereby preventing the acquisition of a much-needed life skill: resiliency.
Developing resiliency is like riding a bike: difficult to master, but impossible to forget. Even as years pass between bike rides, the brain easily recalls how to proceed. The same holds true with resiliency; developed early, it can be effectively utilized in adulthood. But just like riding a bike, it takes practice. High school is crucial in the process of resiliency development; it’s an opportunity for teens to experience grit-producing scenarios. When denied such formative experiences, life’s future challenges are forever exacerbated by its absence.
Thus, I challenge parents of high school students to adopt these five practices as we enter a new school year.
1. Don’t address issues with teachers before your teenager does.
The two people best fit to resolve a classroom conflict are the student and teacher. Swooping in prematurely will cause defensive posturing from the teacher and complicate the resolution process. Parents can instead redirect this energy and teach their teen how to think through, organize and properly record their thoughts in an email to their teacher. Not only will this memorialize communication, it also provides insight into the student-teacher interactions from a healthy distance. Teens need effective communication skills, and parents can teach, but not supplant those skills.
2. Let go of your fear of teacher retaliation against your teenager.
Teacher retaliation is never accepted, and certainly addressed when it occurs (though instances are rare). Still, parents avoid teacher contact in fear of retaliation against their child. However, teachers typically already know the source of complaints; they are anticipated, and warnings to superiors are issued. So when parents attempt to avoid teachers, it actually causes more harm than good; it makes the conflict become adult vs. adult, taking focus away from the true focal point: the student. Circumventing teachers denies teenagers an opportunity to practice resiliency skills.
Tense conversations function similarly to training wheels on a bike. Teens need to hear feedback from their teacher, and teachers from their students; even if that only means agreeing to disagree, it’s important that each is given an opportunity to be heard. More often than not, both student and teacher walk away with a better understanding and heightened level of respect for one another. However, if a student feels they are being subjected to retaliation, it should be immediately reported to administration; for it’s only when behaviors are exposed, that behaviors change.
3. When your teen gets home from school, don’t talk to them about school.
Reflect on the end of a long work day; there’s an element of decompression required to transition from work to home. The same is true with teens; they need time to decompress when they arrive home. Although they’re thinking about school, they aren’t ready to discuss it. Teens require the mental real estate to operate without immediately being asked to rehash school with their parents. Without a school-free buffer, teens will avoid talking to parents at all costs. Once the norm of school-free discussions is established, teens can become more willing to communicate, which in turn, provides a natural segway into school-related topics.
4. Ignore the manifestations and look for underlying issues.
School performance is a portal into the teen psyche; it has little to do with school, and really is a reflection of their mental and emotional state. Parents mistakenly focus too much on specific grades rather than trigger points. Parents can instead attempt to ignore the small stuff, and subtly look for deeper issues causing the manifestation. Teens will only engage with parents for so long, so don’t waste it nitpicking. With enough patience, parents can find an approach that yields enough honesty to eventually reveal the root cause. Without a cause, there will be no solution.
5. Help your teenager develop lifelong skills.
Can you imagine if every time a teenager wanted to ride a bike, it still required a parent to run alongside as they attempted to peddle?! So why do parents still embrace this practice with school? The bike-riding children were appropriately supported and protected (think helmet, training wheels, hands-on assistance). But gradually, these were scaled back until no longer needed. The child was supplied with the tools, time and training to be independently successful.
The same approach can be used in helping teenagers hone resiliency skills. The role of parent is to help their teen to become independent and capable. Instead of emailing a teacher, parents can help their teen articulate thoughts; instead of rushing to administration, parents can prepare their teenager to speak directly with the teacher; instead of nitpicking assessment scores, parents can create dialogue that will reveal root causes of poor performance. In so doing, parents can take their hands off the bike and watch their child ride successfully, and resiliently, off to college.