There are so many articles online about how parent high school students. Taking some of the guesswork out of parenting a high school student is fantastic idea in theory, but a list of top ten tips such as “make sure they eat breakfast” and “get them to go for a walk if they are stressed” only goes so far. What if at 11:30pm on the night before a major assessment your child is absolutely freaking out, declaring “I know absolutely nothing! I’m going to fail!”, and proceeds to have a meltdown? Or if your child knows every single detail about the five TV shows they follow, but nothing about the courses they’re doing at school? In these situations, you can’t just feed them breakfast and expect a miracle.
The main reason why generic advice online doesn’t work is because students exist on a spectrum of motivations. Talk to a highly motivated student about study and they’ll happily listen. Talk to not-so-motivated student about it and they won’t want to. Tell a highly motivated student to relax if they’re at risk of burn out and they won’t listen, tell a not-so-motivated student to relax and they’ll think all their Xmases have come at once!
The parenting style that works for one won’t necessarily work for another. (My parents will attest to this: my brother and I are totally different… we like to keep them guessing!)
Let’s look at how you can help your child via communication and organisation – whether they’re straight-A stress heads or motivationless meanderers.
Much of the advice directed at parents approaches communication with an air of “here’s how to get your child to do what you want them to do”. But after ten years of talking to students, I know this isn’t the best approach. Why? Because whilst adolescents don’t like being controlled, they do want to feel heard. Based on the things students tell me, it’s clear that communicating with a high school student comes off far better if your agenda is simply to keen communication lines open, and honest.
- Helping your child to keep chugging along is important. Depending on the type of student and how they are feeling, different amounts of input are needed.
- If your child is motivated, or just generally going through a patch of high motivation, they won’t need or want prodding. As one of our year 10 students said to his mum: “Just be there. I’ll come to you if I need to. And if I’m working, please don’t come in to my room and ask me twenty questions.”
- If they are struggling to find the motivation to work, of course you’ll want to help, but you have to go about it the right way:
- Students who cope with direct communication need to be asked: how are you going? What can we do to help? Is there anything we could do that might make things easier? What do you need from me?
- If your child shuts down and puts up walls when asked direct questions, use sideways communication! (Sideways communication is where you approach issues from the side, so it’s not as confrontational. This has to do with both the way you position yourself (side by side, in the car, couch etc.) and how you approach talking points.
- Pretty much every student gets stressed at some point. Students who work hard are prone to stress over getting everything done and getting good marks. Students who aren’t working hard can also get stressed about not getting things done. Either way, when you’re dealing with a stressed teenager:
- Remain balanced with a relaxed attitude yourself. If you’re stressed:
- You endorse/validate the stress response.
- They won’t confide in you. You set a precedent and kids expect to cop that from you all the time. One of students didn’t tell his mum about upcoming exams for 3 years, purely because he didn’t want her asking him a barrage of questions like “do you need a lift?”, “do you have enough pens?”
- They’ll get overwhelmed because they’re getting plenty of hype at school and don’t want more hype from home. “We’re already stressed out – don’t add to it. I know it is important, I don’t need to be reminded all the time.”
- Be human, honest, and empathetic; students find it good when someone just “gets it” and can tell them it’s normal to get stressed. Teens crave validation; it’s a time when they constantly seek approval from others. I’ve had students say things like “my parents don’t ‘get’ me like my friends do.”
- Honesty – if your child gets good results then say so. If they are not so good, also say so. Don’t go to either extreme of implying they’re perfect, or hounding them relentlessly for errors.
- When talking about their paper:
- Don’t say: “What happened?”, “Why did you write that?”, “I thought we practised this”, “How come you only got…?”
- Don’t catastrophise. Nobody wants that. “Don’t make me feel that if I don’t do well I will basically have a crap life.”
- Ask insightful, reflective questions that will boost a student’s metacognitive thinking. Say things like: How do you feel about this? What worked in the lead up to the assessment and what didn’t? What’s the plan for the next one?
- Encourage them to get more feedback from their teachers. I’ve seen students who present essays that get 12/20 and “Good” written on them. Not much you can do with that!
- Don’t compare marks with other kids/siblings. Just encourage your child to focus on themselves and not worry about others. Most people – driven to study or not – go through periods of sensitivity when it comes to how others are doing. Don’t add to it.
- Don’t focus on things that they can’t change. For example, scaling. One thing I realised pretty early on with one of my students was not to discuss scaling. He was doing mostly arts subjects and started to get anxious about how these subjects would scale. As the decision was already made, we got on with doing as well as possible and scaling was actually a banned topic.
Dealing with ultimatums
- Sometimes students come up with sweeping statements like “I’ve stuffed up my HSC.” Approach this with:
- Examples of times when they’ve been successful
- The HSC isn’t everything – there are other ways to succeed.
- There are other important things exams don’t test for: being a good person, people skills, and passion.
- What these marks do is open a door into uni. If you don’t get the grade, there are so many alternative routes. For example, does your child want to get into medicine? Look at doing an undergraduate degree, and sit the GAMSAT for post graduate entry. No 99.95 required.
Separating the mark from the person is so important for long term wellbeing.
- If they are still disheartened, don’t feel as though you need to bolster them ASAP. Sometimes kids want someone who will listen, not a motivational speaker. Also, being down sometimes is normal so let them feel what it feels like.
- Always love. Obviously. Or as one teenager eloquently put it, “Show love, and stuff…”
When communication doesn’t go to plan
- Sometimes your kids just aren’t in the mood. Sometimes kids, like you, just aren’t wanting to chat. We know what it’s like when you spilled your coffee in the morning, traffic was bad, had to pick up the shopping at lunchtime because you had no time in the afternoon because you had a late meeting, which went terribly by the way, and by the time you get home you’re just about ready to scream! If something similar is happening to your child, back off for a bit and let them cool it.
- Forgive yourself! You’re going to nag, get frustrated when they can’t see it from the perspective you can, and there will be blazingly obvious inconsistencies in behaviour (no time to wash up, but time to party) that irritate you.
We get asked about organisation all the time by parents. “How can I make sure I don’t leave them stranded, but also don’t interfere too much?” It does seem like lots of parents care and want to help, but not to the degree that they turn into tiger parents who overload their kids with work and control how long they study for. The balance is optimal because students who can receive help but also be self-sufficient grow into adults who do the same.
- Keep a communal calendar that contains important exam dates, excursions etc. Teens complain about being asked too many questions so this solves that problem. It also makes sure that you are present when important things are going down. As one student said, “I just wish my dad was actually in the country for my assessments.”
- Attend parent-teacher meetings, parent info evenings, keep an eye out for the school report etc. These are a wealth of information. Arrange follow-up meetings if you have to. Teachers do care and will be happy to chat to you.
- Organise regular check-ins with your child. Make it fun, do coffee or whatever. “My dad & I would have fortnightly coffee ‘meetings’ and would talk about recent assignments and how I was doing with major works etc… it was a great time to talk about what I might want to do after school (he had lots of ideas haha) and it was also a great time for me to ask for help on specific things (e.g. proofreading a history essay) – this way they knew what I was going to be focusing on for the following week or two, and were able to help without bugging me every day!”
- We covered motivation above, and this relates to how much to help your child with planning their time.
- If your child is feeling motivated and on top of things, they will probably have a system that works for them. Don’t interfere with this. “My friend’s mum used to colour code her subjects and timetable for her at the beginning of each year. I always got weirded out by that. So did she, actually.”
- If your child is going through a period of low motivation, here are some things you could try:
- Don’t get frustrated with them. Lacking motivation is probably something you’ve experienced too, just in a different area of your life. (Gym memberships, anyone?)
- When internal motivators fail, humans can be motivated by reward, and also by being made accountable i.e. making them obliged to complete tasks, and be held responsible for their actions.
- So let’s say a student isn’t studying, and they need help changing that. You can help them to formulate a plan and stick to it, keeping in mind that they need to most of the work themselves, and you’re just the facilitator.
- First: identify what their goals are – what is it that they want to be accountable for. This could be informed by your calendar – look at assessments coming up and what they want to get in them. Get them to tell you how much work needs to be put in, so that you’re not calling the shots. Also talk about what they’re going to reward themselves with after doing it, and schedule that in too.
- You can then help them stick to the plan.
- They still need to put in the actual work, and you’re not there to provide exact structure and study particulars. Why?
- Spoon feeding doesn’t encourage autonomy, and you need that at uni/workplace.
- When success is their own, it builds confidence and motivates further challenge. They have evidence that they can do it.
- So you make the study plan. But sometimes there’s still a problem, and it’s that they don’t understand the work, or they don’t have good study skills. So they’re sitting down to study but don’t know how to do the questions, nor how to structure time. If this is the case, students might get frustrated and angry, or feel upset and helpless. It’s a good idea to ask a teacher for assistance, or a tutor. Our students tell us that it’s great to have someone outside the family who can boost their understanding and also to give tips on how to study to reach their goals, so that when the time comes to study, they get more out of the time they put in.
- Study plans are easy enough to draw up, but there are large differences in approach depending on the subjects a student studies. Creative subjects typically involve a major work, whereas technical subjects like maths and science and very study-focused. Both subject types require planning, but the major works need more long term planning, with smaller goals identified and reached on time.
Should my child study during the holidays?
We say yes, but not for the reasons you might think. A 5-year study done by Karl Alexander et al. of Johns Hopkins University, demonstrated that summer holidays have a detrimental effect on students who don’t access enriching and intellectual experiences over the break. So if your child plans on turning into a content-consuming technology fiend during the holidays, this won’t serve them well academically.
Leaving things to the last minute
Plan as you might, there will be times when your child leaves things to the last minute. Best thing to do is stay as calm as possible, and try to keep everything else as normal as possible, including bed time. Otherwise it’s a slippery slope. If it’s not done, it’s not done. Often it is done though, and students are just being pedantic with a generous dose of perfectionism.
- How should you personally help your child with school work?
- Encourage them to talk with you about what they are learning. You don’t need to be great at the subject yourself. Ask: So, what’s that about? Tell me more about it. How does that work? What’s the important/key point you need to know for it? How is it usually examined?
- You can give them feedback about general readability, do a spelling/grammar check for them, anything that’s not going to impact upon the essence of what they’ve written. This can sometimes take pressure off and make a task seem smaller. All they have to do is get it to the stage where it’s more or less done, and then you can help them. I still do this with articles I write – I send them to my family and my partner, and everyone chips in their 2 cents.
- Make sure that any feedback given isn’t all negative! I edited a student’s story recently and there were definitely sections of it that I thought could be improved. But there were bits I really loved so I told him that as well in the track changes. I also chose to edit in so that’s it’s not a blast of ANGRY RED COMMENTS.
Love your kids, warts and all. Be there, whatever crops up. Applaud what they can already do, help them find the motivation and develop habits to do what they can’t do. As a team, working together, you can do so much.