High school is an incredibly stressful time for students. With a mountainous workload, extracurriculars, social pressures, college application deadlines, and future uncertainty looming like a heavy raincloud, it’s easy for student morale and health to take a big hit. Many families wonder how they can support their students during this difficult period. In this article, we’ve compiled some practical advice for parents. We’ve tried to avoid platitudes and focus on practical, realistic, impactful ways of facilitating your child’s mental and emotional health. Here are the top ten things families can do to improve student well-being:
1) Check in with them
It’s easy for family members to zoom past each other from day to day, week to week, sometimes barely acknowledging each other’s presence. Don’t judge yourself or your family members for this—everyone gets caught up in the rush sometimes. But whenever possible, let your student know you’re there, and that you care about them. Try a simple, non-loaded, “How are you?” or “How are you feeling today?” They may or may not want to talk at that moment, and if not, you can let it go. But it might be just the thing they needed to hear if they had a hard day. So make sure to check in frequently (though not constantly!) with your student and ask them how they’re feeling.
2) ...But not too much
You know your student better than we do, so you have a sense of their boundaries, their limits, and how much of their emotions they want to share. Sometimes we can overdo it with our check-ins because of our own anxieties. Our students know the difference between a truly compassionate “How are you?” and an anxious, loaded one. So make sure you’re aware of your own anxiety levels, and using your own sources of support (spouse, friends, relatives, therapist) to explore what your student’s college journey brings up for you.
3) Listen fully
When your student does choose to talk to you, give them your full attention, your full presence. Put the phone down, turn away from the computer, and listen. As you’re listening, try not to think of ways to fix their problem or what advice you’ll give them. Before you decide to say anything, listen to their words, observe their gestures, and be aware of their emotions. This kind of attentive listening is so healing (we bet you can think of a time when someone listened to you this way and how great it felt), and can deepen relationships. So listen fully to what is being said, and to what isn’t, and then and only then, respond with what is truly needed.
4) Have compassion for their freakouts
We all want to think our students are strong and capable, but the truth is, sometimes they snap! Before you react, pause to consider the stress they are going through—the uncertainty, lack of control, judgment, and fear they may be caught up in. You shouldn’t be a doormat for your student’s misdirected tirades, but touching in with compassion for the difficult time they are in will give your response that much more meaning, and will help to calm the situation. It will also demonstrate to them that it’s possible to have control and steadiness during difficult situations.
5) Help them look at their fears
To reduce the frequency of the aforementioned freakouts, talk to your student about their biggest fears surrounding school and college applications. Play out all the what-ifs (“What if I disappoint you?” “What if I don’t graduate?” “What if I hate my job?”) and smash those what-ifs to bits with all the ways that they will be okay no matter what happens.
6) Provide healthy food options
The mind and body are one connected unit, and poor nutrition can wreak havoc on the body and increase stress levels. Your student won’t have the presence of mind, the time, or probably even the skills to prepare healthy meals (it’s crazy they don’t teach this in school, right?). So, we know it’s time consuming, but make your best effort to provide nourishing meals and have healthy snacks available, preferably ones that your student at least moderately enjoys.
7) Provide opportunities for exercise
Along the same lines, provide ways for your student to exercise. Some high schools waive their physical education class requirement at a certain point, so the most exercise your student may be getting is trudging from their locker to their third floor biology classroom carrying a thirty-pound backpack. Propose family bike rides, trips to the local swimming pool, a game of catch in the backyard. If you have the means, invest in a family gym membership.
8) Make time for fun
Insist that your student put down the books and do something they enjoy on a regular basis—with you or without you (ideally, both!). Taking breaks for fun activities is a powerful morale boost, especially when your student’s energy level seems low.
9) Encourage rest
You know what else is good when energy is low? Rest! Do what you can to support healthy sleep habits for your student. Encourage family down time, too. Not every moment spent together has to be filled with fun, activities, talking, or eating. Veg out on the couch and read books together; introduce them to yoga or meditation; sit and stare at the clouds. Giving the nervous system time to calm down can give your student a much-needed reset.
10) Take good care of yourself, too
You don’t have to be a wellness fanatic, but there are a few advantages to taking good care of yourself. Firstly, it models healthy mental and physical well-being for your student. Secondly, you’ll feel good and be better equipped to weather the emotional storms of high school with your student. So be the wellness you want to see in your student, and it will have a positive impact on them, too.