You’re a loving parent. You’ve read those stories about overbearing parents— maybe you even had them yourself. You’ve sworn to be one of the Awesome Parents. You’ll let your kids be independent and start to handle their own lives. That’s what high school is for, right?
In a word: No. In sixteen years as a high school teacher, I worked with thousands of students at all levels of achievement. The single biggest mistake I saw was often made with the best intentions: as soon as kids hit high school, parents backed off. “My kid doesn’t need my interference,” they’d say. “He can tackle his own problems now.” Lots of kids happily agreed—until, of course, real trouble hit.
There’s a big difference between a kindergartener and a fourteen-year-old. You don't have to meet your child at the classroom door every day unless you want her to run the other way.
But there are many situations in which kids easily get in over their heads. Often, they won’t ask for help, but you should be ready and willing to provide it. Here are the three most common situations I’ve seen:
1. Physical Safety. Kids love to act like they enjoy testing limits, whether it’s driving too fast or staying out too late. My students almost always acted out with an eye on parents, asking “what will you say?” Too often parents looked the other way. Instead your job is to give a reasoned, but serious “No.” You stand for safety. You may get rolled eyes, but in the end the strongest result will be respect.
2. Emotional Safety. Teen years bring deep, heavy questions like identity, values, sexuality, etc... It’s true that lifelong friendships can take hold, but so can deep heartbreak and surreptitious bullying. Watch carefully. If you suspect that your child is struggling, offer to listen and help make a plan. If the situation persists, speak to guidance counselors, teachers, administrators, or coaches. Work hard to make your school an ally—and to show your child that she's supported every hour of the day. If you’re on the fence about intervening, remember this: adolescence is a peak time for impulsive suicides. Stay connected—you won’t be sorry.
3. Learning Problems. With their self-contained classrooms, elementary teachers are accustomed to observing your child’s individual learning styles and adjusting curriculum. But in a large high school classroom, your teacher is probably most adept at conveying subject matter, and may have no idea about how to accommodate your child’s needs. If you suspect that your child is struggling, pick up the phone and call the guidance counselor to request an evaluation, or adjust your child’s courseload. Individual teachers can also move seats or adapt homework.
Of course, high school will be over all too soon, and then it really will be time for your teen to try her hand at fending for herself. If you’ve spent the high school years standing by your kid, and intervening where it counts, don’t fear that you’ve undermined independence. When tough challenges appear again—and they will!—your kid will remember the skills you model: how to listen to feelings, tackle hard topics, act decisively, and not just survive, but thrive.