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I’m currently surrounded by high school students who are really depressed.

Not my own, thankfully. But we’re watching several young people we know go through some very difficult times, with parents at a loss as to what to do. And at the same time, news has hit our community of how fragile life can be in high school. One of my daughter’s closest friends is reeling from a suicide at his school.

Adolescence is not an easy time, and it is all too easy to one day wake up and find that your lovely, compassionate child has become a well of anger and animosity.

I am firmly of the belief that the high school years are the most difficult in one’s life. Though I have gone through more difficult things since high school–such as losing my son–somehow I was able to deal with them as an adult. As a teen, even small things take on such huge significance because you don’t have the proper perspective to deal with them. Whether or not you are liked by your friends is so important, and yet high school is really quite a lousy place to make friends. You’re together not based on common interests or common personalities or values but simply based on where you live and what year you were born. If you were to group adults simply based on where they lived and what year they were born you may not find very many friends, either. High school is a toxic–if not downright evil–environment.

I’m always telling my girls that when they are adults, they’ll find more friends like them because they’ll move in different circles. In the teen years you’re desperate for a peer group, and yet it’s very hard to find one.

And that’s why bullying or negative comments by peer groups can make you feel so horrible. I recently wrote a review of Kevin Leman’s book Have a New Teenager by Friday, and that definitely has some great strategies and good ideas. But today I want to focus on three main priorities in helping your child through the high school years: helping them find perspective, purpose, and productivity. Let’s look at how:

1. Encourage Your Child to Get a Job

This one’s controversial, and it isn’t for everyone. But hear me out.

Many of the problems that teens run into are because they feel that the whole world is against them because their whole high school is against them. But high school is not the whole world. Or they may feel like they don’t fit in anywhere because they don’t fit in in high school. But high school is just a small part of the world.

If your teen can find a job, he or she can find somewhere else to fit in. I loved my jobs. I worked as a cashier at a Christian bookstore and at a concession stand for NHL hockey games in Toronto. In both places I was mostly working with adults, not teens, and I think that’s important. Those adults became good mentors, and helped me to get out of the “teen” culture. I saw that there was a bigger world out there.

So encourage jobs like working at Wal-Mart or working in the mall. Try the library. My daughter now works as a lifeguard. Sure, McDonald’s is fine, but most fast food jobs are populated by the same kids your child goes to high school with already. Think bigger.

And the great thing about a job is that it also gives them a sense of perspective. High school is NOT all there is. I CAN support myself (though they’ll realize that they need more than minimum wage!). But it is empowering to make your own money. It makes you feel more confident and more independent, and less at the mercy of a cruel peer group.

2. Discourage High School Activities

Another controversial one: but try to keep your teen’s extracurricular activities focused more outside the school. Give them a new peer group. Even if your child is doing well in high school, things can change very quickly. If they have outside interests and outside friends, they are not as reliant on high school. If your child is really into sports, then you need to think about it and perhaps a sports team at school is the best place. But most kids, I believe, would do better putting that time into a job.

If they like music or theatre, encourage them to try out for the community theatre production rather than the high school theatre production. Get them on a praise band at church rather than the band at school. See what I mean?

3. Encourage Interest Groups

My mother belongs to a knitting guild. She gets together with several women and goes on knitting retreats, knitting trips, and then she simply gets together and knits. I joined her when I was quite young. In fact, I was the youngest in the group. But I loved knitting, and I learned so much from those women, who just loved me being there.

Is your child into chess? Sewing? Quilting? History? Encourage them to join a group of adults who participates in that stuff. My husband paints miniature soldiesr and then gets together with other guys and fights out historical battles. Every now and then teens come and watch or play. They’re always welcome. And it gives these teens a sense that “I can fit in”. “There are other people like me.” “I don’t need to be cool.”

4. Encourage Volunteerism

My friend Maddie put together a fundraiser for the Kenyan orphanage our family visits when she was just 16. She arranged for the catering, and the music, and the donated items for the silent auction, and they raised about $3000 that night. Teens can do a lot. What is your teen passionate about? Encourage him or her to raise some money or start a campaign for it. Kids are naturally passionate; channel it! As they concentrate on people who are really in need, they gain perspective on their own situation, and they realize that they can make a difference. They are important in this world. God has a role for them to play.

5. Find a Good Youth Group

Having godly friends is so important in high school, and yet not all youth groups are equal. Not all youth groups are truly loving. Not all youth groups are safae places. If the youth group at your church isn’t healthy, send your child to another youth group. Try them out until you find one where he or she fits. I have known parents who have not let their children go to youth activities at another church because it threatens their own church. Do not EVER put your church, or your pride, above your child’s spiritual health. Find a youth group that works, and encourage your child to go.

6. Have Family Nights

I know life is busy. If your child has a part-time job, or is acting in a local play, or is going to youth group, time may be at a minimum. You can’t do everything, which is why I encourage you to stress one or two things outside school rather than doing all the activities at school. But whatever is going on in your child’s life, keep doing family activities. Play games once a week. Take walks together. Plan vacations together. Keep your child connected.

7. Realize there are Alternatives

Finally, if your child is really suffering in high school, and just doesn’t fit in, and it has become toxic, remember that there are alternatives. Your child can take high school online, or even start university early. Be prepared to do something drastic if your child is hurting!

8. Discourage Wallowing

Sometimes kids become so sullen they almost revel in their sullenness. They hang out in their rooms playing depressing music. They read depressing books. I recently read Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, which is an EXCELLENT book about a Columbine-type event. It sounds horrific, but it focuses more upon the parent-child relationships and the bullying than it does on the tragedy, so it’s not agonizing. I loved it.

But one of my friend’s teenage daughters, who is going through this sullen period, is also reading it. If your child is moody and depressed, steer clear of depressing things, or else participate with them. Read the book with them and talk about it. Make a rule that doors can’t be locked all the time or kids can’t hang out alone in their rooms constantly. Get outside and go for a walk. Do not let kids play violent video games non-stop. These things contribute to the feeling and make it worse. Do not let your child revel, or take pride, in their depression. Do not let it become their identity.

Take all these things together and what you have is a teen whose life no longer revolves around school. They realize they are not
freaks, and that they can fit in to the real world. They can make a contribution. They can be productive. They focus on some of the good things in life.

Parenting a teen is hard, but it can be done. Take these steps early, before your teen gets really depressed, and you’ll likely find the high school years easier to navigate. Let me know what’s worked for you!

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