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Getting the School Year Started Right

Like New Year’s resolutions, the start of the school year is a perfect time for parents and teenagers to make resolutions in regard to goals, responsibilities, and expectations.  It is an opportunity to think about what you and your teen hope to accomplish this year, but it is also a time to think about your household rules, making sure they are still age-appropriate (or appropriate according to the maturity of your teen).

Consider the environment your teen is about to enter.  What precautions and advice can you give them?  What should they avoid, and what should they strive for this year?  How will this year affect their future, their college choices or their future career?  Will this be an especially difficult transition year, such as moving to a new school or from junior high to high school?  At such times, it is especially important to help make the transition as smooth as possible.  I recommend visiting the school with an older student who is already familiar with the school as your tour guide, so your child can learn the ropes and understand what to expect, including the good, the bad and the ugly.

Get the Relationship Right

It is also a time to shore up your relationship with your teen.  Be diligent in making one of your goals this school year to meet with them regularly, at least once a week.  It can become more difficult as their schedule gets busier, but don’t allow their activities or friends to come between you.  Make it a requirement to get together weekly at a restaurant or coffee shop; or better yet, go have some mutual fun together.

You’ll find that every time you meet with your teen you’ll learn something new about them, and your relationship will blossom.  If your teen is a boy, keep in mind that boys will clam up if a parent expects them to look them in the eye when they talk.  My friend Bill Ziegler, a middle school principal and frequent guest on our weekly radio program, says, “Boys communicate better when we’re side by side, versus face to face.”  I find that boys also seem to process life while they are involved in an activity of some sort.  So you’ll be most successful if you can find something fun to do together, all the while interjecting thought-provoking questions to keep the conversation going.

For girls, too, conversation naturally comes out of having fun together.  Talking less during these activity times may be difficult for a parent, but when it comes to getting teenagers to open up to you, you can’t shut up too much.  And be sure to prevent distractions during your time together. Don’t bring along friends or siblings.  Don’t go to their regular hangout, where they’ll likely run into their friends.  Don’t allow iPods or cell phones.  And by all means, don’t announce the activity is for the purpose of having a talk. Just leave the space open and available while you are with them, to see what happens next. Then zip your lip, be quiet, and practice listening.

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Your teen may never have a long discussion with you; it may just be the “instant message” version. But listen carefully, because what is said will probably be short and you’ll have to do some reading between the lines. Repeat back what you think they said, or ask a few quick questions to clarify what they meant.  This will signify that you are really listening and wanting to understand them.

A number of things happen in the first few weeks of school.  So it is no time for parents to back off after a long hot summer with their teen.  In fact, I recommend that you double up your one on one meetings during the first month.  Listen to what your teen has to say about their new teachers, their schedule and their peers.  Perhaps they are already being bullied by someone, so it could be that they need to be quickly moved or the school officials told about the bullying.  Getting it right in the first few weeks is critical, since you can still make changes in their schedule or classes before they get too far into the semester, and before they become discouraged.

School Is More Stressful Today

School has become a much more demanding environment for our kids these days.  The pressures are significant to perform for others; socially, academically or athletically.  So, take care in reviewing your teenager’s schedule.  Don’t allow them to over-commit their time to school or other extra-curricular activities, including those at church.  Adults will recruit them to commit to every spare second in their day to sports, clubs, music, or youth group, if you allow them.  It’s up to you to help your teen prioritize their schedule, while giving them permission to cut out some things if it appears they are taking on too much.  If they are unwilling to confront the people who are pushing them into a state of being over-committed, ask your teen’s permission to speak to them yourself.

Other kids will under-commit and avoid involvement in anything but what’s required.  So you may need to help them by asking them to at least try out for a sport or a club or other activity that will broaden their horizons, give them a new skill, or put them in the company of a positive peer group.  Remember, in the teen years one of the most important things you can do for your child is to help them find a positive peer group – so do whatever it takes.

Is Your Home a Place of Rest?

Finally, but no less important, be sure to take a close look at the environment in your home.  Is it a place of rest for your teen, or does it just add to their stress?  Having reasonable rules and chores won’t cause stress; it is when there is poor communication, excessive lecturing, bickering, and fighting.  So, pick your battles wisely and major on the majors.  Set aside the minor issues, especially during the first few weeks of school.  When your teen gets home after school, allow they some time to kick back and find some rest, even if it is just playing a video game or going for a walk.  They need to unwind, just like you do when you’ve had a stressful day.

I hope you use this time at the beginning of a new school year to recharge and regroup.  Watch for signs of problems with your teen, especially during these first few weeks.  If they get off course, it will likely be now as they are dealing with new teachers, new or suddenly “grown-up” peers, new pressures, and possibly a transition to a new school.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, national radio host, and the founder of  Heartlight a Residential Counseling Center for Struggling Teens.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.