January 18, 2016

How to help your high school student get into the driver’s seat….

I had a question from a reader about how to get her high-school age daughter to advocate for herself at school. Ask for extra help. Find out the timing of tests and assignments, connect with teachers and letting them know she exists.

This is a perennial parental challenge. We know how and what they need to do. We tell them. They ignore us. It’s incredibly disheartening.

For us, not for them.

Because the very act of not doing what we want is an act of independence. Teens are hard-wired for that. Their prime directive – built into the teenage DNA – is to assert independence and separateness from us. Except when they need transportation or money, in which case they make an exception.

When we’re thinking (as opposed to reacting, which we mostly do) we know our teens are incredibly resistant to us telling them what to do. Especially about school, where they’re told what to do all day by teachers. To recall how they feel about that, please review the previous paragraph.

So what to do when we see our beloved offspring shooting themselves in both feet by failing to advocate for themselves at school, or even doing the basic stuff like noting when test and assignments are coming up (and looking at their agenda more than once a month!)? If we can’t tell them to do it, what can we do to help?

Kids are pretty good about talking when you make them the expert. If you’ve been telling them what do, this new technique will come as a shock and it will take them a while to warm to it and to believe that you really are there to listen rather than lecture. So be patient. They don’t talk on your schedule. There’s waiting involved. I find driving is an ideal time to get a recalcitrant teen to talk. Because they’re trapped in the car with you, and you can’t look them in the eye while you’re driving. They feel less cornered.

If we want our teens to take charge of anything, we need to remember that their daily reality is a nonstop power struggle. They either feel disempowered by parents and teachers, or they feel in danger of being disempowered. Unfortunately nothing we do can change that, because taking control over their own life is an adolescent’s core developmental mission. So our goal, if we’re being clever, is to reduce the opportunities for them to say NO, and find ways to support their empowerment. Think of adolescence as the terrible two’s with a drivers’ license.

Supporting their empowerment at school will lead to them taking more control over their school life. We want this. How to do it? Ask them questions about school. Listen to what they say. Do not give advice. This will be incredibly hard. We’re so anxious about their success that we have trouble resisting telling them how to achieve it. Before you open your mouth, think about how your advice affects them. Become a professional listener. In telling you their stories, they will begin to reflect on their school life. That’s how humans roll. We tell stories, we understand ourselves better – because in becoming a great listener, you validate them as the expert on their life.

Sometimes when humans feel expert, we take actions to make things better. Usually that takes a while. This process requires both patience and silence on our part. I have a big mouth. This does not come easy to me. I often – literally – sit on my hands as a personal reminder to shut up. That helps a little.

Below is a list of questions you can choose from – not all at once please!

What do you like about school? Why? Tell me more

What do you dislike about school? Why? Tell me more

If you ran the school, what would change there?

What teachers do you like? Why?

What teachers do you dislike? Why? What would make them better? Could you help them be better? How?

How’s your relationship with your teachers?

What would make school better for you? Tell me more

Is there anything you could do to make school better for yourself?

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