Let’s be honest: high school is hard for most kids.
There are complicated social dynamics. There are intense external pressures on academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities. Crazy things are happening with teens’ brains and bodies. And all these things are occurring under the microscope of social media and video cameras.
It’s hard to admit, but looking back on my first teenager’s complicated freshman year, I don’t think I helped.
To be fair (as my teens always say), it was my first time being the parent to a high schooler. But as my next child is about to enter this final phase of secondary school, I hope I’ve learned from my mistakes, and maybe sharing them can help someone else.
Five high school parenting mistakes I won’t make again:
Overchecking the parent portal
Going into high school, I would not say my son was the most organized. His backpack was always a mess, he procrastinated on school assignments, and he often needed reminders about his schedule.
While I did try to give him some room to figure things out on his own, I panicked when he entered high school, knowing that his grades were more critical now if he chose to go to college.
I started checking the parent portal daily. Each day when he came home from school, I grilled him about assignments that were missing or grades or upcoming tests. There were times I would get angry about something before he even walked through the door.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t believe in my son. I didn’t even give him a chance to succeed. Instead of asking him how his day was and how I could help, I started micromanaging his homework, studying, and how he was spending his time.
Our relationship became contentious, and I could feel him pulling away. One day when I came home and found him playing video games instead of studying for a big math test, I made a passive-aggressive comment asking if he was learning geometry while playing on the computer.
His response: “The teacher gave us the weekend to help prepare because so many people did badly on the practice test. I don’t have to take the test because I got an A.”
Over time, I found that my son was figuring out how to manage his schedule all on his own and was doing well in his classes. Sure, there were times he forgot an assignment or bombed a test. Some teachers didn’t always put assignments or test scores in for a few weeks so his grades were inaccurate. In other situations, my son already spoke to his teacher about making up work or had the opportunity to retake an exam.
The portal did not tell the full picture of what was going on at school, and I slowly stopped checking every day to once a week to a once-a-month check-in with my son. I had to have some faith in his teachers and in him to work it out, even if that meant losing control.
Overcompensating for their schedule
Freshman year seemed a bit overwhelming. My son played a fall sport, had some tough classes, joined some clubs, youth group, and a new-found social life full of events at school.
So, I tried to make his life a little bit simpler. I did his laundry (and folded it and put it away.) I looked the other way when he forgot his regular chores like taking out the garbage, helping with the dog, or yard work. I told him too often not to worry about the dinner dishes so he could study.
I started feeling like my son was living his best life, and I was his chauffeur, maid, cook, and banker.
Over winter break, I started to get a little annoyed when my son rolled his eyes when I asked him to empty the dishwasher one evening when he wanted to go hang out with friends. That’s when I recognized that it became a habit for him not to help–and that was my fault for overcompensating for his busy high school schedule.
I believe there are times that we should help our teens because who doesn’t need some grace? But if we want to help our kids learn how to be independent and productive adults, we have to take the time to teach them how.
I forgot that chores and responsibilities at home are the foundation to helping launch our teens into the world and learning valuable life skills. We are not doing them a favor by constantly doing things for them that they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. We need to be parenting at this stage, realizing that adulthood is only a few years away, and our kids need to know how to take care of themselves.
So to that end, here is the really important part. I needed to hold him accountable for his responsibilities and enforce appropriate consequences when they weren’t holding up their end of the bargain. That often meant him not leaving the house until chores were done or sometimes missing out on something altogether, but it ended up making a more peaceful relationship for both of us.
High school brought some new experiences for my son, including new friendships, new social situations, and new problems. I did not always handle them well.
I am a high-anxiety person, and tend to overreact at times. This is one of the worst things you can do when trying to keep open communication with your teenager. Overreacting to minor issues or mistakes can make them hesitant to confide in you, leading to a breakdown in trust. It can encourage them to start circumventing the truth in order to avoid a blowout, or even worse, them shutting down completely.
Sometimes my son came to me with a request that seemed outrageous for a 14-year-old, and I didn’t handle the situation well. I either laughed or said “absolutely not” so quickly that it ended with both of us yelling at each other.
What I learned during my son’s freshman year was I needed to set some clear boundaries with him so he knew what our everyday rules were non-negotiable (like curfews or knowing where he was), but I also needed to be flexible and hear why he wanted to do these things.
I started a new practice with my son for every request. I took a breath and said, “I’m not sure, tell me more about why you want to go and who is going to be there.“
This gave me time to pause and gave my son an opportunity to plead his case. Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of times I said no to requests (like a co-ed sleepover freshman year), but I did learn to listen first, which kept the communication lines open.
I also learned to stop overreacting about the small stuff, like when he was in a bad mood after practice, left his shoes in the middle of the hallway, or a missed assignment. I had to remember that everyone has bad days, and my unconditional belief in my son was that he was a good person and still learning. I didn’t always learn how to pick and choose my battles, but I was getting better.
One cold spring Saturday morning, my freshman woke up super crabby. He had a workout session he was supposed to attend, some big tests coming up, a volunteer event, and he was dogsitting for a neighbor. There was also something going on between him and a girl he was interested in, so I knew he had been up late the night before. I casually reminded him that we also had a dinner that night with some friends that were in town.
That was when my normally even-keeled son melted down. In between a few sobs and complaints about everything, I could tell something had snapped.
He was exhausted and overwhelmed and did not feel good. He had pushed himself too far, and I missed it.
What my son needed at that moment was more sleep and a second to breathe. He needed to learn that there was a time he needed to listen to his body and mind’s signals and take care of himself.
The world only has one setting: Go Go Go. But sometimes, it’s okay for our teens to push the pause button. Teens and young adults must know it’s okay to protect their mental health and well-being.
So, I told him that he should skip the workout that morning and go back to bed. I had his younger sibling take care of our neighbor’s dog that morning, and he fond a replacement for the volunteer opportunity.
He was worried he was letting people down, but I explained that sometimes people usually understand as long as it is not a habit. And if they didn’t, that still was okay.
Focusing on the future instead of the here and now
This was a tough one that I’m still working on, but it’s probably the most important.
It seemed like the second we walked through the doors of high school all anyone could talk about was college admissions. There was constant discussions about how many APs you could take, getting on the right teams, finding the right SAT tutor, building your college resume, etc. I definitely got caught up in it.
I felt like if we didn’t push our son then he would miss out. I started to get this icky feeling that I was competing with other parents and focusing on my son’s achievements instead of who he was as a person.
By the end of freshman year, when we sat down to discuss his sophomore year schedule, instead of pushing him to take harder classes, I asked him what course he thought would be interesting.
When he said he wanted to get a part-time job to save for a car, we talked about his time commitments and adjusted his academic schedule accordingly to include a few honors classes he would like to pursue, instead of just doing all advanced classes for the sake of doing it. My husband and I thought earning his own money would be an excellent way for him to learn responsibility and the value of a dollar.
When a few days later, he nervously said he wanted to quit his club sports program and only play for his high school team, we asked him to think about it, and then when he sat down with us again, he said he still felt that way. Previously my son always spoke about wanting to play his sport in college, so the sudden shift made us wonder if our son was making a choice that would impact his future.
But despite feeling unsure if it was the right decision, we supported his choice. It ended up being harder on us than for him as he had more time to work, study, and relax (self-care.)
By focusing on his needs in the here and now instead of obsessing about his future, I saw my kid blossom into a responsible, fun-loving high schooler instead of a burnt-out, anxiety-ridden student. Letting him take ownership of his path and believing he knew what he wanted his life to look like was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.
Learn from my parenting mistakes.
I did a lot of things wrong that freshman year, but I know I did them with a well-meaning heart. I’m lucky my son is understanding and was willing to learn some of this tricky stuff together.
He’s now entering another freshman year, this time at college, and while I still worry a little too much, I know he’s ready. And his siblings can thank him for giving them a much more flexible, understanding mom.
High school is hard for everyone, but especially us parents!