Science-Based Strategies to Help Your Teen Deal with the Pressure of High School
Being a 14-year-old girl attending her first day of high school is one of the highest-pressure situations anyone can face. How do I know this? Because I am the brother of two sisters who went through it and the father of a 14-year-old girl who started high school today.
The pressures are varied and intense for teenage girls:
- Fitting in socially
- Not fitting in socially
- Boys and all the drama that comes with that
- Social media
- “Bad” teachers
- Having too much homework
- Parents expectations of getting good grades
- After school commitments
- Hormones (my daughter worries about how that can impact her behavior with her friends)
- Worrying about getting into college (yes, they worry about that now at 14).
- Getting up early - my daughter has to get up a 6:00 a.m. to catch her 6:45 a.m. bus as school starts at 7:20 a.m
I am sure there are more pressures that a 14-year-old girl faces that I don’t understand. As a parent, you want nothing more than to take all the anxiety away make it easy and smooth for them. Well forget that, it’s going to be hard and scary at times, but there are things you can do to make it less difficult for them. From our New York Times bestselling book, Performing Under Pressure and our work in Emotional Intelligence over the past 20 years, here are strategies we know can help:
1) Listen to and validate their fears and concerns. Kids need to know you understand and care. When you say things like “you’re smart, you’ll do fine” or “you’re good at making friends so don’t worry about the drama”, although well-intentioned, the impact of these kinds of statements can be that your child thinks you don’t understand them and they may even feel you are discounting their feelings.
In research by Jeremy Jamieson at the University of Rochester in New York, Jeremy and his team looked at students who were preparing for their graduate record exam, or GRE, a standardized ad-missions test required by graduate schools to assess candidates. The students were told that they were participating in a study of how stress affects cognition. The team told half the students that recent research suggested “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do bet¬ter.” In other words, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, they were told, “you shouldn’t feel concerned, simply remind yourself that your anxiety could be helping you do well.”
Simply because they read this statement before the test was admin¬istered, the students’ performance improved significantly. They scored fifty points higher in the quantitative section of the practice test than the control group. A couple of months later, the students took their actual GRE test and reported back scores. Jeremy and his team were interested in seeing if the intervention had long-term staying power or whether its effects were short-lived. The group was taught to see pressure and anxiety as beneficial in the lab ex¬periment scored sixty-five points higher than the control group on the actual test. In other words, those students who were told to believe that anxiety could be helpful did markedly better.
Ensure you validate the fear and anxiety your child is feeling. Sharing stories of the anxiety you felt going into high school will demonstrate that you understand at least little of what they are experiencing.
2) Shift from crisis to opportunity thinking. We are all physiologically wired to view every pressure situation as a crisis. When your child succumbs to crisis thinking – “I won’t make any friends”, I’m terrible at math”, “I’ll hate school”, this causes the release of chemicals – adrenaline and cortisol (our stress hormone) – that increase their stress and degrade their cognitive abilities. However, if you can coach them to see the pressure of first day of high school as a challenge to overcome or even an opportunity, the opposite happens. Positive chemicals are released – noradrenaline among others – reduces anxiety and enhances cognitive capability. Ask your child what are they looking forward to about high school. E.g. seeing friends they didn’t see during the summer, playing sports, enjoying art class, etc. Positive images fosters a tendency to think more positive thoughts.
3) Remind them of time when they handled similar situations well. We call this strategy “Recall You at Your Best”. Remembering your past suc¬cesses ignites confidence — you did it before and you can do it again. As your confidence increases, uncertainty (anxiety) and pressure are diminished, freeing you to approach the task with your best effort. Nervousness becomes transformed into positive enthusiasm that is directed to the task, rather than anxious thinking that is distracting. “I’ve done it before. I can do it again” is the mantra of this pressure solution.
Research shows that the thoughts and behaviors associated with our past experiences are imprinted in our brain; the more frequently these experiences are thought of, the more firmly implanted they be¬come, and the more likely they are to resurface in a current experience. On the other hand, someone who frequently recalls the anxiety of a pressure moment is more likely to repeat that sense of anxiety.
Take time to remind your child of a time when they handled a similar situation well – when they went to middle school, started on a new team or had to move to a new neighborhood. It will help reduced their anxiety and give them confidence.
4) Let go of outcome. Research by Carol Dweck shows that when parents focus on the results or outcome of getting good grades, it puts extra pressure on kids. However, when we focus on what’s within their control – being resilient when there are setbacks, how hard they work, how creative they are, paying attention in school, eating healthy, managing social relationships well, etc. – and we coach and affirm those behaviors, it has a much more positive affect on their emotional well-being and their grades.
This doesn’t mean they don’t have goals to get A’s or B’s, but as they are working through the day-to-day challenges of being in high school, you want to let go of focusing on getting good grades. Focus on all the things they are doing that lead to getting those grades.
5) Breath. Teach them to take deep breaths and if you are comfortable with it, teach them about meditation. Not much more needs to be said as there is so much great research on value of focused breathing and meditating – not to mention just taking a deep breath when we feel anxious!
6) Tell them you love them, are proud of them and that they will be ok. You think they know this, but teenage brains need to hear it often and in as many different ways as possible.
You can’t take away all the fear and anxiety your teenager will face on their first day of school and throughout the school year, but you can help them navigate through their challenges by applying some or all of these strategies. In doing so, you will also teach them skills they will benefit from their entire lives.
And of course, these strategies apply to adults when we face the fear and anxiety in our pressure moments. Having a big presentation, job interview or meeting with a difficult person? Apply as many of these strategies as you can to be your best when it matters mo