Adolescence is a challenging chapter for children as well as their parents, with hormonal changes, shifts in interests and a natural pull towards independence altering the family dynamic. Taking a supportive stance and remaining emotionally connected can be the key to helping your child find focus and reach their full potential.
This is according to Chris Kemp, a psychologist at Netcare Akeso Randburg Crescent Clinic who notes that as children enter adolescence and particularly their teens, parents should begin to adapt their approach towards helping their child cope with inevitable bumps in the road and ultimately find their own focus in their high school years.
From problem solver to support crew
“Stress is a natural part of life and even younger children can feel heavily pressured at school. As they head into high school this pressure only builds with concerns about career choices and university entrance. While it can be difficult to observe this as a parent, stress in children is inevitable and you do have the opportunity to support them through that so they can learn how to cope,” says Kemp.
“It is worthwhile being aware that a shift in your role is likely to take place. Younger children will tend to want you to provide a solution for tackling a problem. As a parent you may be used to playing a strong guiding role in these situations, but this can often change as a child naturally wants to try and find their own way in their teen years. At this point your role becomes more support based and while this can feel scary for many parents, it is a natural progression.
“A useful phrase to keep in your back pocket is: ‘I know that you are under pressure, what can I do to support you?’ This puts a positive and constructive frame on the conversation, while reassuring your teen that their experience is being validated by you.”
Staying on track
Kemp notes that the pressures around academic performance during the high school years can be particularly challenging to navigate for both children and their parents, and suggests the below pointers for parents to remain engaged with their children and support them as their high school career unfolds:
Perfectionism is associated with depression. Helping your child to set realistic goals throughout the year will give them a greater sense of achievement and help them to stay motivated, so that they don’t feel like a disappointment to themselves or to you when in fact they are progressing well. It can be worth expressing your expectations to them and letting them know you do not expect perfection.
- Be OK to sit with them in emotional discomfort
Learning how to cope with stress and pressure is an important life skill, so you need to help your child express their feelings around that. Most often, adolescents simply want to be heard – you can do this by telling them you understand how they feel rather than trying to quickly move past it or compare it to your own stress levels, as this can seem dismissive and push them away.
- Provide a sense of agency
Giving your children a sense of agency and responsibility is likely to result in them feeling more motivated and engaged. Encourage them to consider what they want their life to look like in the future and what goals they need to reach at school in order to achieve that, with the understanding that the responsibility lies with them. If you are concerned that their current career choice is not realistic, help them to realise that ideas can change and that having a solid backup plan can only benefit them.
While academic marks are unquestionably important and give your child a foot in the door, this needs to be balanced with the development of social skills for them to achieve overall success in life. Many parents underestimate the role of social development. You want a child who can maintain academic focus and who can also function well in a team, form relationships and alliances, impress in an interview and so on. Periods of socialising count very much towards this aspect of their development.
- Be aware of marks as an emotional distress signal
A sudden dip in academic performance can very often be an indicator that something is wrong and you should address that. Changes in sleep and eating patterns are likewise possible red flags for an emotional problem. Start the conversation with a non-threatening approach by gently asking if anything is wrong. It may take a little time for them to open up to you and it’s important that they feel ready to do so. If they are unwilling to communicate about these sudden changes tell them that it’s okay if they don’t want to talk to you, but that you would like to arrange for them to speak to someone else, such as a counsellor, because you want them to feel supported and to get the help they need.
Longer term lags in performance
“If you are concerned that your child is not doing their best to reach their potential over an extended period of time, sit down and have a conversation about areas where they might be struggling such as time management, concentration and distractions,” says Kemp.
“It is natural for parents to feel anxious about their child’s progress, but it is important to ask whether your actions are based on expressing your own anxiety or on meeting the needs of your child. Screaming and shouting may help you to vent your frustration, however it may be destructive to your relationship. Your child’s school career is their own, and self-reflection is important in ascertaining whether the goals being set are your child’s or yours.
“A different approach might be to emphasise that you care deeply about their wellbeing and that it is not your approval that matters – ultimately, if they do not give their best in achieving their goals they are only failing themselves. Providing your child with a sense of agency and responsibility for their path in life gives them a stronger sense of their own future, which is important as they move closer to adulthood,” he concludes.
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Notes to editor
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