Supporting a struggling teen and helping them land on their feet can be a challenging task, but it’s worth it. It’s our job as parents to do what we can to guide them in good times and bad, but sometimes knowing what to do is the problem. Our instincts aren’t always right, and it’s easy to forget what it’s like being a teenager, especially now, when the world is so different from when we were growing up.
My son is a senior in high school and while I’m far from an expert and a perfect parent, there are a few things I’ve learned about how to handle tough times with a teen. Maybe one of them will resonate with you.
- Strive For Open And Non-Judgmental Communication: Creating a safe space for your teen to express their feelings and concerns isn’t always easy. I wasn’t very open with my own mother growing up, and I wanted to change that when I had my son.It’s hard sometimes, but I try not to overreact every time my son shares things with me, even if I’m not happy about what I’m hearing. He knows me well enough to sense my discomfort, but I notice that if I don’t say anything right away and give myself a chance to consider my response, I don’t push him away. Listening actively without judgment and letting them know you’re there to support them applies whether we’re happy about what we’re hearing or not.
- Set Realistic Expectations: Help your teen set achievable goals, both academically and personally. When goals are unattainable or out of reach, it leads to constant disappointment. Encouraging my son to focus on progress rather than perfection may not yield results right away, but over time he’ll get the message that the latter is not the goal. Progress is.When my son was feeling overwhelmed at the start of the school year, we talked about the importance of recognizing what was necessary and what was not, and clearing our plate of the latter. I didn’t learn this until I was much older, so being able to plant that seed for my son now was important. Sometimes to take care of ourselves, we have to take something — or two — off our plates, just so we can breathe and handle the things that are actually important. He ended up letting go of two activities that he’d grown out of and while that may seem crazy at a time when activities are important for college applications, his mental and emotional state was more important.
- Teach Problem-Solving Skills: Raise your hand if your teen can quickly get upset and put off problems🙋🏽♀️. Unfortunately, while it’s perfectly normal, it won’t help their problems go away and it won’t teach them coping skills, either. When my son is faced with a problem or dilemma, I encourage him to brainstorm solutions that are within his control and let go of the rest, so he can evaluate his options and make informed decisions based on what’s possible instead of what’s not. It’s easy to get hung up on what’s not in our control, but it won’t get us anywhere, so I try to steer him in the other direction whenever I can.
- Provide Structure and Routine: Establishing a consistent daily routine that includes time for homework, chores, relaxation, and social activities is something you hear a lot when kids are young, but it’s just as important to continue that into the teen years. Having structure is known to help reduce stress and anxiety, so the sooner they get used to creating routines, the sooner they’re likely to find balance.
- Model Self-Care: We all know that promoting good health by encouraging regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep is important. These habits can improve mood and overall well-being. I’ve found the best way to do this is to let him see me taking care of myself. I let him know when I’m heading to the gym for my favorite class, when I’m making time to see my girlfriends, and I invite him to join me on walks whenever I can. If he sees me making my health a priority, he’s more likely to do the same (I hope). We are our kids’ greatest role models, and I take that job seriously. Demonstrating self-care practices by taking care of my own physical and mental health shows him it’s possible to prioritize it, so hopefully he will, too.
- Foster Independence: Sometimes kids want to be left alone, and sometimes they need help so desperately you can’t help but jump in and take over. Letting go means letting them screw up, which is hard for a parent. But it also means opening the door to learning, growing, and opportunity. Sometimes I ask myself, is this an age-appropriate decision? If the answer is yes, I try to support what he wants even if I’m concerned it’s going to lead to disappointment. Otherwise, how is he going to learn to take responsibility for his actions?
- Celebrate Small Wins: I tell my son that progress is progress, no matter how small. Positive reinforcement can boost a person’s self-esteem and motivation, so they’re better able to handle moments of struggle. Also, I want him to be the kind of person who celebrates the little things because sometimes they are what matters most. Instead of getting hung up on the big stuff like getting into a brand-name college, for example, I’ve tried to focus on just getting into a college — period.
- Support Their Interests: Encouraging your teen to explore their interests and hobbies can have profound consequences. Having things that they enjoy doing but don’t have to do helps balance their life, so it’s not always pressure, pressure, pressure. Over the years, when my son has expressed interest in signing up for an activity, a sport, or pursuing a new hobby, I’ve done my best to encourage it, even when they’ve been short-lived. Helping him discover his passions provides a great outlet for stress.
- Limit Screen Time And Talk About Time Management: OK, this is way easier said than done once they’re teens, but I’ve learned that when my son and I set reasonable limits on screen time together, he tends to stay on top of things and manage his time better. On heavy homework days, he agrees to hand me his phone and he usually doesn’t get it back until he’s done. We work mostly on the honor system, but I can always check his grades online to make sure he’s submitted his work. Excessive screen time also can impact sleep and mental health, which only makes him moodier, so we talk a lot about the importance of getting enough sleep, too.
- Encourage Seeking Outside Help: I’ve let my son know that it’s OK to ask for help when needed, whether it’s from me, a teacher, a coach, a counselor, or someone else. He knows I’ve sought professional counseling before to improve my communication and relationships, which I hope has helped to normalize it. I want him to know there is no shame in asking for help. It can be a sign of strength, not weakness. I think boys in particular don’t hear that often enough.
- Promote Resilience: At our house, we talk a lot about failure. It’s inevitable in life that we will all “fail” at things. But I think framing it as an opportunity can make a huge difference. Whenever possible, I try to share stories of my challenges and how I overcame them, even if it took me a while to get there, so my son knows that bouncing back is not only possible, it’s also inevitable. It’s easy to want to show our children our best selves, but I think it’s important he knows that I’ve screwed up big time, too. We all make mistakes. No one is perfect.
- Monitor Social Media: It’s not easy to monitor a teen’s every move online, but simply being aware of their online presence and interactions can help you spot potential pitfalls, such as cyberbullying. I’ve talked to my son about how colleges and places of employment will often look at your social media history as a way of getting to know you, so it’s important to be mindful of that and set privacy settings for fun banter with friends. Given how much teens today are online, it’s almost irresponsible not to provide some sense of responsible internet use.
Whatever you do, try to stay patient and supportive. Sometimes progress is slow, and setbacks are normal. Remember that every teen is unique, and the strategies that work for one kid may not work for another. It’s essential to tailor your approach to your teen’s individual needs and seek professional help when necessary. Your unwavering support and guidance can make a significant difference in helping your struggling teen find their footing and thrive.
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