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3 Things to Tell Your Teen Before High School Starts

As high school starts, the countdown clock to college, independence, and adulthood begins ticking faster. The choices that teens and their parents make during their high school years can have a lifelong impact—which is why open, honest conversations on big topics are so essential.

3 Key Discussions to Have With Your Teenager Before They Start High school:

1. Keep college in perspective.

There are over 2,100 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Yet many high school students (and their parents) will focus on only a few select schools on that list, and let stress over the college admissions process dictate their lives.

Choosing extra-curriculars and electives in order to pad a college resume may lead them to the easiest-to-accumulate (and often least meaningful) community service. It also makes them approach coursework by asking only, “Will this be graded?” or “Will this be on the test?”

Instead, consider asking your child: “When high school is over, what do you hope you will have accomplished? What do you think my goals are for your high school years?”

Hopefully, they’ll realize that high school is not simply a stepping stone to gaining admission to one particular college, but rather an opportunity for learning and strengthening skills. We also want them to build and deepen relationships, and to begin to discern a purpose and meaning for their lives to follow.

2. Be patient with yourself and others.

The teenage brain is different from the adult brain, causing them at times to behave impulsively, emotionally, thoughtlessly, and irrationally. They will get in trouble with their teachers. They will embarrass themselves. They will make mistakes that they wish they could take back. And they will be surrounded by hundreds of other teens whose own impulsive choices will negatively impact your child on more than one occasion.

Help your high schooler get in the habit of metacognitionthinking about how they think.  If they reflect on a bad or hurtful decision, they might find no rational reason for their action—they just behaved thoughtlessly (or perfectly naturally, for a teenager). This might help them be less defensive and take responsibility for their choices. They need to understand that making bad or stupid decisions doesn’t make them a bad or stupid person.

When your teen behaves in a hurtful or disrespectful way, they should of course take responsibility, apologize, and try to the best of their ability to make amends and set things right. Similarly, parents can remind their child that they’re surrounded by other teenagers whose brains are similarly wired to make poor decisions, and they should try to extend empathy and forgiveness often.

3. I love you.

They may roll their eyes and act exasperated, but teens need their parents to tell them how much they love them. It may seem like a simple thing, but during this big transition in their life, teens need to hear their parents express their unconditional love.

Use this time before they start high school to remind them: “I love you. There is nothing you can ever do that would make me love you less. I may get frustrated and lose my temper. You may make a decision that really disappoints me or even hurts me. But I will always love you, no matter what.” Then repeat as often as necessary.

Obviously, there are lots of other meaningful conversations to have with teens—about academics, peer pressure, sex, drugs, alcohol, friendships, and so much more. But ensuring that your teen knows that they will be loved no matter what will help put them on the path for a successful high school experience—and the many years that will follow.

Tim Tinnesz

Tim Tinnesz, a father of three, is head of school at St. Timothy’s School in Raleigh, NC and sits on the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools. A former high school principal, he also served in the Georgetown University Alumni Admissions Program, interviewing high school seniors as part of their admissions process.