Being a teen has new responsibilities and new challenges to tackle in the four years they are at high school. For parents, knowing how to help navigate your teen’s social, academic, and mental needs is anything but easy. Natalie Borrell, a certified academic life coach and licensed school psychologist and founder of Life Success for Teens (lifesuccessforteens.com), provides tips on how to help your teen become the best version of themselves possible.
No one ever wants to feel like they are alone. A child needs the love and support from their parents, and when the time comes to ask “how are you doing,” make sure you listen rather than lecture. Knowing the warning signs of anxiety or depression within your teen can help determine the right kind of help your teen needs early on.
Borrell provides some helpful tips:
Ask your child how their day has been and what they did today. Find time to ask this question while preparing dinner or watching TV, so it doesn’t feel like you are interrogating them.
Tell them that you are here to listen and to make them feel comfortable. Try not to pry information out of your child; when they are ready to share, they will tell you how they’re feeling.
When your child opens up to you, do not judge them or try to critique their actions. Say “I understand,” or “that sounds like a difficult situation. How can I help?”
Be honest and open with your teen. Show them that you struggle with mental health too. Share ways that you overcome your mental health struggles.
Try bonding by doing activities that release stress and anxiety. Try going on a walk with your child, going to yoga classes, or taking some time after dinner to sit down, listen to music, and journal. Be a part of their healing process.
“Adding in some type of self care as part of your daily routine is so important,” Borrell says. Parents can get involved in that by modeling it themselves. Talk about it and model self care and talk about coping skills. It is all normal.”
If your child has difficulty maintaining relationships, struggles academically, no longer engages in leisure activities, has repetitive, self-destructive behaviors, withdraws from family, friends, and usual activities, has a change in sleep or appetite, and/or talks about self-harm or suicide, consult with a mental health professional.
“I think the first step is awareness of what the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression are versus what is just normal teenage moodiness,” Borrell says. “To know when to seek professional help, I would say you have to look for subtle warning signs. I don’t want to put a number on it, but a persistent change in mood that’s for a long period of time”
Beep, beep! Time to buy a “student driver” bumper sticker. As your child begins to learn how to drive, be sure to be patient with them. You were once a student driver, too.
“Have conversations about safety,” Borrell says. “We always feel like ‘nothing can ever happen to us,’ but things can happen so quickly that it’s important to emphasize safety first. Be very open with your teen about how driving can be anxiety provoking and stressful but it also gives us this amazing feeling of independence and you can see more of the world. Tell them how wonderful of an experience it can be as long as we keep these safety rules.”
Here are some tips:
• Be supportive and encouraging. Teens will feel more confident behind the wheel if their parents are positive and encouraging.
• Be mindful of the wording you use. Teens
are anxious behind the wheel. Tell them “we will turn left at the next intersection” rather than “turn left NOW.”
• Telling them where to go ahead of time will make the driving experience go smoothly.
• Tell your child to be aware of their surroundings. Always check your mirrors, your blind spot, and for other drivers around you. Lock your doors at all times and never roll the window down for strangers. Pay attention to ambulance/fire truck sirens and always use your turning signal.
• Make sure to correct behavior rather than scold your child.
If your child is speeding, rather than yelling at them to correct their speed, say “We always have to follow the speed limit for the safety of the driver, passengers, and people on the road. Did you check the speed limit?”
• Be a good example for your child. Follow good driving practices when driving with your child. Monkey see, monkey do.
• Try practicing how to drive during the day and when there’s good weather.
• Driving at night and during a thunder storm or snowstorm may be too difficult for a first-time driver.
• Begin practicing in large, empty spaces. Go to a large empty parking lot or drive around a cemetery. Starting off on a busy road or highway may make your teen anxious and not know what to do.
• Tell them it’s OK to fail. If they aren’t good at making turns, changing lanes, or braking properly, let them know that’s och. If they fail their driving test, let them know it’s OK. Practice makes perfect.
• Tell your child the dangers of drinking and driving and the dangers of getting in the car with someone who is driving under the influence.
Some friends/teammates/classmates may get their license before your teen. Let them know that is OK and to celebrate their friend’s success rather than look down upon the fact they don’t have their license yet.
“I see so much comparison,” Borrell says. “Comparison is real. It happens across the board. Please remember that what you’re seeing is just the highlight reel of somebody else’s life. Where somebody else is ahead of you, they’re also far behind you in another area of their life. You just don’t know about it. Everybody has a story, right?”
Out with the old and in with the new. As teens move away from middle school to high school, they may lose touch with old middle school friends or may find it difficult to find a friend group in high school.
“Find your people,” Borrell says. “So that can either be for the teenagers themselves or for parents to help facilitate that. Look for activities, clubs, sports organizations, that you are innately interested in If it’s not at school, then look in the community, maybe through your church.”
Lots of teens download Bumble or Tinder or other dating apps. Be cautious of the dangers of dating apps. Some people are not really who they say they are. Lots of people lie about their age, their appearance, and their intentions
“My dating app safety tip is it’s not safe,” Borrell says. “I don’t approve of that at all. There are so many people misrepresenting themselves. I don’t think teens have the emotional maturity to handle something like that. So I’m very anti dating app for teens.”
She advises teens to be careful dating in high school. Make sure your child is involved in a healthy relationship. Look out for red flags.
“A parent should always know who you’re going out with face-to-face,” Borrell says. “It should not just be I’m going out with so and so and I’ll see you later. It is a need to absolutely know where you’re going and what time you’re going to come home. If I’ve met the person, I know where you’re going, and you can tell me what time you’re going to be home then that would be okay, but I think those three things are absolutely necessary.
“I think one of the most important things is to talk about and describe what a healthy relationship looks like and how it makes you feel,” Borrell says. “Teens don’t necessarily realize that the type of relationship they’re in is not healthy.”
Also, while in high school, teens may be pressured to do things they don’t want to do, such as drugs, drinking and/or sex. Talk to your kids about peer pressure and that they are never obligated to do something they don’t want to.
“I think a lot of families have different expectations or rules about this behavior,” Borrell says. “I think having the discussion about family rules first, what the consequences will be, and then also what some other additional consequences could be outside of the home, is important. Give them all the information they need to hopefully make the right decision.”
Academics and extracurricular activities are a huge part of high school.
“I do strongly feel that any type of sports or extracurricular activity that the pros outweigh the cons,” Borrell says. “That sense of being a part of a team, that sense of accomplishment and goal setting and working towards something.”
Teens shouldn’t have to compete with classmates about taking AP or honors classes or getting the best GPA. Likewise, teens shouldn’t compete with teammates about who got the most points or kicks and who is the MVP. School and extracurriculars should be fun, not a competition.
“Ask for help,” Borrell says. “Now, that is very difficult for teenagers. But if we can talk about the importance of advocating for yourself and asking for help when needed, I think that’s the first step. The other thing that I recommend is having a conversation with your teenager, under the umbrella of who’s on your team, meaning if you’re struggling with math, who are the people that you can go to at school, who can you go to? So that you know if and when there is an issue in a specific class, you’ve already figured out who it is that you can go to.”
The ACT/SAT can be very stressful and Borrell advises not to compare scores.
“Prepare early,” Borrell says. “There’s a lot of smart kids who don’t do well on those tests, because part of doing well on that test is understanding the format of that test, the timing, the types of questions that are asked and being well practiced in all of that. So not only are you being tested on the material, but you’re also being tested on the ability to take that type of test. So that’s why the preparation is so important. And the earlier that you can get started on that the less daunting of a task it will seem.”
Most high schoolers get their first job around this age. Knowing how to answer questions in a job interview is uncharted territory and can be nerve-wracking
Borrell says practice, practice, practice. Parents or friends can help teens conduct a pretend job interview to get them comfortable
“Such a simple question like ‘tell me about yourself’ in an interview seems very easy, right? It can be very difficult for a teen if they have not thought through that or maybe even scripted it out or done some bullet points in practice,” she says. “Also, make sure that they know all the basics about finding a job in terms of how you apply, how to fill out an application, what kinds of things to put on your resume, they might need to see some samples.”
• Resumes can make or break whether you get a job or not. Have a teacher or some one in career services take a look at their resume and tweak it.
• Make sure your child knows what to wear during their job interview and when they actually begin work.
• Balancing a social life, work life and academic life can be tricky. No one ever said it would be easy; take it one day at a time. “Time management is a huge issue for adults too, but also for teens,” Borrell says. “I think one of the best ways to look at that is to really figure out some ways to manage your time efficiently.”
College applications, the Common App Essay, FAFSA — all are a stress inducer. They can get a head start on college plans to relieve any potential headaches.
“The amount of support that a teenager is going to get with their college application process at school is going to vary greatly,” Borrell says. “So in some schools, they get a lot of support and hand holding through the process. But for other teenagers, they’re not going to have that type of support. And so I think knowing the overall timeline of the college application process is important.”
She advises to have them start planning early.
Tour schools your junior year of high school. Decide what school best fits their mental, academic, spiritual, and social needs. Have them talk to a college counselor at school. See what options are available. They can start sending out their academic transcript and ACT/SAT scores. Also, make sure to discuss financial aid options with the college.
“So I think (teens) really need to do some assessments,” Borrell says. “So either like personality assessments, which (they) can do online. There’s also career assessments that can kind of guide (them) towards a specific career cluster. (They) may even discover some careers you didn’t know existed.”
“Please let your teen know that there are going to be bumps in the road,” she adds. “They’re going to have days where they’re moody, they’re going to have times when they get in trouble. But if you can have this underlying unconditional love, I think that is so important. Let them know that there might be consequences to bad behavior, but that you will always love them and support them. I think that needs to be the tone of all conversations.”