Caring for your high school senior’s health
By Robin Noble
August to December is a high stakes time for high school seniors, and life can run amok in highs and lows.
Academic pressure, relationships, college application deadlines, the final season with a beloved sports team — stressors like these are just a sample of what any given senior’s world might encompass.
Some students navigate the course more readily than others. What’s the secret? Parental support may be the key.
One caution: parents are hardly objective on the subject of their children’s well being. We see our students struggle and we react. So how can we support our high school seniors’ physical and mental health through stressful times without interfering in the process?
Start with what you know. You know that when you swoop in to offload burdens you undermine your student’s development. Begin by accepting the fact that the challenges of fall semester are his to seize.
Now carve out a relevant, meaningful and sincerely useful role, that of supportive adult. Consider five ways to support your student’s physical and mental health without undercutting the benefits of the struggle:
1. Evaluate your own reactions to stress. Are you modeling calm and cool?
“It’s really important for parents to model good coping skills when they themselves are anxious,” says Karen Soren, director of adolescent medicine and associate clinical professor of pediatrics and public health at Columbia University in New York. “How does the parent respond to stress? Does the parent drink alcohol a lot, does the parent smoke, is the parent irritable, does he or she withdraw? Because kids often look at their parents and adopt these unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
If coping with stress isn’t your strong suit, work on it. Students learn what they see modeled by the important adults in their lives, and seeing a wide range of positive coping strategies is key. Every mental health expert interviewed by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the subject of supporting our students’ mental health cited parental role modeling as the most important factor.
2. Engage in non-judgmental communication
Sharpen up your listening skills and look for windows of opportunity to talk with your student on her terms. If she does open up, let your student talk things out with you completely before offering your opinion.
“Be approachable,” says Garry Sigman, a specialist in adolescent medicine and an associate professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Health System in Chicago. “Be someone who can be talked to by being a good listener.”
Bringing a positive mindset to every conversation, without preconceptions, will allow meaningful communication to take place. Your role is to listen, validate, and trust her to connect the dots.
If the problems she’s discussing are outside your range, let your student know it’s okay to seek help from a counselor, health care professional, or other trusted adult. Check in with her school’s counseling department as a first step for finding trusted resources. Some schools provide mental health services on site; others can help students connect with community resources.
3. Salute the struggle, but be alert to serious problems
As a parent, you want your children to be happy, but happiness doesn’t equate to comfort. Overscheduled students often experience classic symptoms of stress, like headaches, moodiness and fatigue.
It’s important to build up a tolerance to observing your students’ struggles. Find the positive and point it out; a simple comment like, “you’ve been working really hard lately; let me know if you need some support,” lets your student know that you see his efforts, and encourages him to open up if he’s feeling overwhelmed.
Pay attention when the situation seems more serious, especially if your student is experiencing grief, relationship issues, social bullying or any other exceptional stressor. Typical manifestations of depression include significant mood and behavioral changes, hopelessness, sadness, sleeplessness, self criticism, low self esteem and substance abuse. More subtle signs might include withdrawal from family and social activities, consistent irritability and truancy.
If your student exhibits these more serious symptoms, your most important role is to notice. Open a non-judgmental dialogue that neither minimizes nor tries to solve her problems. Let her be heard and validated, and then move forward by consulting with your student’s health care provider as a first step.
4. Model and support a healthy lifestyle
It may be that exercising and eating right are underrated tools in the kit because they can be difficult to come by. We have to carve out time for a workout, time to shop, time to cook; and yet time is our most precious resource for “getting things done.”
But physical self care is a critical element of both our physical and mental health. Anyone who exercises consistently, sleeps well and eats well will attest to these factors as key to their overall contentment.
As usual, demonstrating this positivity through our own lifestyle is the most powerful way to influence our students. Supporting it in our students is probably second most important.
Busy students need help fitting healthy choices in. Your support might take the form of giving rides, serving balanced meals, keeping their workout gear laundered, making breakfast, sending them to school with a full bottle of water. These things may sound trivial but they can make a big difference for students while allowing parents to contribute in practical ways.
5. Keep your expectations clear
The tendency to pull back on house rules and regulations with your 17- or 18-year-old student is normal and often appropriate. But parents who throw all parameters out the window run the risk of creating insecurities by giving students too much freedom too fast.
At a minimum, it is always good policy to know where your student is and when he will be back home. Continue to discuss with him the consequences of unprotected sex, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Bring a consultative, caring approach to all subjects, with an eye towards building a firm footing for your successful adult relationship ahead.
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