Written by Dr. Joannie DeBrito, Family Support Specialist
After two to three months of summer, former middle school students are expected to enter high school fully independent, in control of their emotions, and ready to plan the rest of their lives.
These expectations are obviously very unrealistic, and yet a surprising number of high school staff members evaluate their new students based on their level of independence and emotional maturity.
Parents and grandparents can contribute to a successful first year of high school by helping their teenagers learn to be more independent, and more emotionally mature, prior to entering 9th or 10th grade.
This starts with working with parents to help set up some realistic expectations for things like homework, household chores, care of oneself and one’s possessions, and standards for behavior.
Each family will have their own ideas about those expectations, but the formula for encouraging independence is the same for all:
- Talk with the child to establish realistic expectations (Hint: It helps if the child is able to come up with some of his or her ideas about expectations, rewards, and consequences before you or the parents do)
- Establish rewards for achieving those expectations
- Establish consequences for not achieving those expectations
- Follow through on the established plan
It’s a fairly simple plan that works well for the vast majority of kids if parents and grandparents stick to the plan.
Parents, grandparents, and high schoolers may agree to an expectation that the high school student will complete all homework that is due the next day before doing anything else after school. The reward for completing the homework is points toward being able to be a part of an extracurricular activity, but the consequence is no points toward that.
If parents and grandparents stick to offering rewards and imposing consequences per the plan, kids will figure out on their own that there is value in meeting the expectation.
Unfortunately, many parents and grandparents don’t follow through on the plan and cave in to the protestations of their kids/grandkids. When that happens, kids just learn how to be irresponsible and manipulative.
Remember that this is the time that teenagers are being prepared to be independent after high school. If you abandon the plan, you have set them up for failure later in life.
We know that a boss has a realistic expectation of an employee showing up for work every day. If that person is your grandchild and he or she often misses scheduled shifts at work, that boss will certainly not reward him or her with payment for the missed shifts. More than likely, the consequence will be that your grandchild is fired.
The same goes for that all-important but often neglected part of our lives called self-care.
As already mentioned in the article about the transition to middle school, teenagers are especially prone to forgetting to take care of a body that is growing and changing so rapidly and is sweatier and smellier than in previous years. This is just starting to be a problem in middle school.
In high school, for some kids, it is in “overdrive”. One of the top complaints of parents, grandparents, and teachers of high schoolers is poor hygiene and practicing good hygiene is part of being an independent teenager.
Those who practice good hygiene tend to be rewarded with more positive attention from their peers while those who don’t are often rejected by peers, for obvious reasons.
So, it’s helpful for a same-sex parent or grandparent to remind beginning high school students of the importance of good hygiene and how to do things that contribute to it such as showering and brushing teeth regularly or doing their own laundry on a weekly basis.
The more independent beginning high school students are, the more emotionally mature they tend to be. Having to learn how to do things for oneself, manage schedules, and be autonomous develops that maturity.
However, lots of high school kids (and plenty of adults, by the way) are way behind in this area, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes younger grade schoolers are more emotionally mature than their high school siblings or neighbors. But high school is “crunch time” because kids need to be able to handle their emotions well before leaving high school.
In general, kids entering high school need to have:
- An awareness of how they are feeling
- The ability to express their emotions in healthy ways that aren’t harmful to themselves or others
- The ability to respond to their peers’ emotions with empathy and compassion rather than with anger, demeaning words, or shaming behaviors
Lots of teenagers have trouble identifying how they are feeling and it’s common for them to default to saying that they’re happy, sad, or angry. However, they need to be able to be more specific.
You and their parents can help them learn more about their emotions by putting words to what you see.
If a granddaughter’s team loses a soccer game and she is upset after the game, what are you seeing? She may say she is mad or sad but you may recognize that she is disappointed or feels guilty for missing a goal. You or her parents could then say “It sounds like you feel disappointed. Is that right or are you feeling something else?” Talking through her thoughts can help her begin to be more aware of her feelings.
Some beginning high school students will still have mini temper tantrums when they’re upset about something. It’s definitely time for them to learn (if they don’t know already) that it’s okay to express their emotions but never in a way that can hurt them or someone else.
Physical activity, for example, is a good want to vent and diffuse emotions. Yelling or throwing things is not.
Likewise, having a good cry with a trusted friend, parent, or grandparent is fine when tears are appropriate to the occasion. However, crying very often or in a way that disrupts the lives of everyone around them is not appropriate.
Once again, we can fast forward to life after high school. Emerging young adults will find that the adults and peers in their lives will have very little patience for frequent fits of rage or crying spells.
Parents and grandparents can help young high schoolers develop healthy expressions of emotion by responding with love and encouragement to appropriate expressions and ignoring or setting limits on inappropriate emotions.
High school is also a time to move from being less focused on one’s own needs and more intentional about caring for others.
The current youth culture encourages a lot of narcissism among youth, so parents and grandparents need to provide alternatives to self-centeredness. Don’t encourage too many “selfies” or heap too much praise for accomplishments on grandkids. Feel free to acknowledge their gifts but be careful not to do so in a way that makes them feel overly prideful.
Help grandkids get involved in service projects that are meaningful for them and talk about some chores you’d like them to do for you without offering any payment. By telling them, for instance, that you need help to lift some boxes that are now too heavy for you, you encourage the development of empathy for you and your limitations as you get older.
Also, when grandchildren respond to others kindly, recognize and acknowledge the kindness: “Wow Josh, that was really nice of you to shovel your older neighbor’s sidewalk!” On the contrary, if a response is unkind or judgmental, you might suggest some other ways of replying.
When my kids were adolescents and started bringing complaints about peers to me, I would always respond by saying something like, “Well, that’s a bummer. Have you thought about where she might be coming from?” Over time, they stopped complaining and started communicating with more compassion.
Once, my daughter came home in tears, talking about being bullied by a peer. She was understandably upset but after she processed her hurt, she said, “You know, Mom. I actually feel really sorry for her. I’ve heard her dad bully her a lot so that’s probably why she bullied me.” This led to a discussion about how she could protect herself and encourage this peer at the same time.
One of my favorite examples of faith, empathy, and compassion in action is the story of teenager Bethany Hamilton, the professional surfer who lost her arm when she was bitten by a shark while surfing. Shortly after she had experienced this traumatic, life-changing event and the painful recovery- at the age of 14, nearly 15- she went on a mission trip with World Vision, to Indonesia. A devout Christian, she set her very real trauma aside to help others who were suffering in the aftermath of what is now known as the most devastating and deadliest tsunami in history.
Finally, remember that while high school kids may outwardly reject your hugs and kisses, they still need the physical touches of their parents and grandparents.
They also need to observe you being good models of emotional health and stability.