What are your teens devoted to?

How back-to-school REALLY feels to teens

Ever wonder how your kids really  feel about returning to school? This back-to-school photo is one of thousands that make the start of a new school year look like fun and games for teens. While seemingly innocuous, photos like these can contribute to kids’ stress by making them feel that they should be this happy, when really, they’re grappling with a lot of conflicting emotions. If your kids give you generic answers about school or act like the start of a new school year is no big deal, read below to find out what’s really going on in their heads.

1. I am so freakin nervous. They may not show it on the outside, but their insides are doing a few flips. And let’s face it, they have a lot to fear. Are they in for a boring year or an exciting one? Will their friends still be mad at them about what happened last year? Will that cute boy or girl ever notice them? Will they fit in, be popular, have the same lunch period as their friends? The new school year is rife with possibilities and anxieties, and teens know it and feel every single one of them.

2. I hope I don’t screw up. They remember their mistakes from the previous year. They know their reputation, both socially and academically. They’re worried their teachers have preconceived notions about them and their friends will remind them of past missteps. They are desperately hoping for and need a clean slate.

3. This could be the year… of achievements, of goals reached, of dreams coming true. They are hopeful they’ll finally find a boyfriend/girlfriend (or at least a date for Homecoming). Thoughts of that elusive A (or for some, just a passing grade) fill their minds. Even if your kids give no indication that they care one iota about grades, they still crave affirmation of their abilities. They dream about making a team or winning the lead role in the school play or earning a place in the district art contest. Even if they don’t verbalize their aspirations, trust me, they have them.

4. I hope I fit in. Even the most outwardly confident kids (and sometimes especially those) have insecurities about their place in the peer world. Teens want to belong. Period. They are under tremendous pressure – pressure I’m confident we adults have managed to wipe from our memories in the interest of self-preservation – to be accepted, to be welcomed, and to be secure in their social group. Just one friend makes all the difference. We know it and they know it.

As a teacher, I try to be hyper-aware of students’ feelings during the first few weeks of school. I urge parents to spend less time worrying about the minutia of the back to school process (buying the perfect class supplies or clothes) and more time really reading your teens’ attitudes when they come home from school. Ask your kids about the things that matter to them and share your own stories about fresh starts, complicated social relationships, and great teachers or classes that impacted your life. Validate their feelings by understanding what worries them and providing both empathy and life experience to guide them through those first tough weeks of a new school year.

The imperative of parent friends

True friends validate you as a parent. – Me.

Yes, I just quoted myself. You can do that in your blog. Question for you: Do your friends support you, encourage you, nod agreeably and say things like, “I know exactly how you feel! I would have done the same thing,” when you’re telling them how you handled your kids in a specific situation? If they don’t, you need new friends, Because one of the most important support systems any parent can have is friends who are also parents and who can validate all of your erratic emotions, flummoxed confusion, and epic failures.

I have always said that I have some of the best friends in the world. Without getting too personal and really setting off my own kids, I’ll just say that I have friends who have 1. housed my upset kid when I wasn’t around, 2. reminded me of the specialness of my kid when I was worried sick about said kid, 3. nodded heads sagely while I vented about my parenting frustrations, 4. reminded me to forgive myself when I have royally screwed up, and 5. treated my kids like important additions to the conversation, with acceptance, respect, and love.

My friends have saved my butt on more than one occasion by being there to support me as a parent. I like to think I’ve done the same for them, maybe saying what they needed to hear at the right moment or letting them know that I understand the emotion they’re having and have been there myself a few times. It’s not rocket science, really. It’s just empathy. And lack of judgment. And acknowledgment that this parenting business is insanely hard work.

Parenting elicits emotions like you have never had before. Sometimes, they’re inexplicable. Friends help you accept that. Just by having felt the same thing, they relieve some of the weight that is parenting. And parenting well? Well, that’s really stepping up your game. Now you’re talking patience, a willingness to try an endless array of conversations and tactics to get desired results, and a level of love so strong that every statement, every action, every embrace brings on a torrent of feelings that will drown you if you let them.

But friends are the lifesavers who won’t let you drown. They keep you treading water, even when you think you don’t have an ounce of energy left. Good friends don’t sit in the boat and watch you struggle. They don’t judge your technique or look away from your desperate attempts to stay afloat. They get in the water with you, hand you a life preserver, hold your hands so you don’t flail, and talk you through your exhaustion.

I know this intimately. One time, when I was sure I was drowning in uncharted waters, a friend of mine took my hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Do you have any idea how incredible your kids are?” Then she recited a litany of examples to support her heartfelt assertion. She had watched my kids, studied them, and knew I needed a reminder of how wonderful they were, right there, right then, before I gave myself up and descended into the depths, the bubbles of my last breath marking my demise. We all need reminders. We need someone standing outside of us observing the parent-child dynamic and assuring us that we’re doing fine, better than fine, maybe even really, really well.

My greatest hope for you is that you have friends in your life who validate your efforts at the hardest job in the world and let you know that you’re never alone. My second greatest hope is that you will be that friend. Reach out to your parent friends and remind them why their children are incredible. Then make sure they know that the incredibleness came from somewhere.