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What This High School Counselor Wants Parents To Know

Today's parents are flooded with well-meaning advice, but it's not always practical or easy to implement.
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High school students talking in corridor
High school students talking in corridor

Today's parents are flooded with well-meaning advice, but it's not always practical or easy to implement. Erin O'Malley, who is the Dean of Student Services and Director of Counseling at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia and on the Educational Advisory Board for Responsibility.org, offers three key pieces of advice to help parents navigate the tricky landscape of adolescence -- advice that can be put into action today.

1. Make time to get to know the parents of your teen's friends.

Parents can learn a tremendous amount about who their kids are by knowing who their kids' friends are -- and there's no better path to discovery than through the parents of those friends. Teens are masterful at hiding secrets, particularly when they've made a mistake, like underage drinking; some parents are really good at seeing their child only the way they want to see them. Adult friendships can help anchor parents in what's truly happening in the lives of their teens.

What you can do today: If your school offers parent coffees, mark them in your calendar today and make it a priority to attend them. Before you head to "Back to School Night," ask your student who he or she is friendly with in class and reach out to those parents when you see them. There are plenty of opportunities for parents to meet one another by volunteering for parent-teacher organizations, booster clubs, and school events.

2. Keep this mantra playing in your head: I'm the parent, not their friend.

I once had a parent come to me because she learned her daughter's friend was suicidal. She overheard her daughter talking about it in the back of the car but she didn't want to blow her daughter's cover and create tension between her daughter and the friend. She did the right thing in coming to see me. From my time working in schools, I can tell you this scenario is not unique. I have witnessed many parents blur the lines into thinking they are their teen's friend. They are not. The best role-modeling we can do is to show our teens that we know how to manage difficult situations, even if it feels as though friendships are in jeopardy. It is our job to be both confidant and disciplinarian. Our teens need to know they can come to us with their problems, large and small. Whether your teen needs a safe ride home from a party where alcohol is present or a friend is suicidal, keeping the lines of communication open is a key part of keeping our teens safe and healthy.

What you can do today: Find a location your student likes (an ice-cream parlor, their favorite store, the park) and start a conversation there. When students are somewhere they feel comfortable, they may be more open to talking. Tell them they can come to you with problems, but be fair and firm, and explain that you will have to act if someone is in danger.

3. Instead of encouraging your teen to be the best in everything, encourage them to be the best version of who they are.

Today's teens feel tremendous pressure to be the best in everything. I've witnessed thousands of teens move from high school to college over the last two decades and I can easily spot the difference between a teen with a growth mindset, one who knows they can develop their abilities through hard work, versus a fixed mindset, one who believes their qualities and abilities are absolutely fixed and cannot be changed. Kids often feel pigeon-holed, but research and experience show that raising teens with a growth mindset -- like one who acknowledges that there are 5,000 colleges in this country and not just their top choice -- is one key to raising confident, successful kids.

What you can do today: Instead of asking your teen what they achieved today, ask them about what they learned. For example, instead of saying, "Did you get an 'A' on your test?" say "How did you feel about your test, what did you have trouble on, what did you do well on, and let's talk about what you need to do to prepare for the next one?" Send your teen a clear signal that as a parent you value their potential and resilience and not just achievement.