The Learning Curve of High School
Late adolescence ends for many young people with a mixture of triumph, loss, anxiety, and regret. There is triumph from knowing that one has actually completed high school. There is loss as one's community of friends begins to disband and disperse. There is anxiety about managing the next step into a larger world or job or further education. And there is regret that the simpler time of living at home and going to school is over, and now the true complexity of finding one's way in the world begins.
Most discipline problems in late adolescence are “speed violations” from wanting to grow up too fast. So the parents' job is tricky: You want to support more grown-up behaviors but at a “reasonably” slow pace, governed by judgment and responsibility, not driven by pressure and impulse.
Late adolescence is all about learning to act more grown up. How does the teenager learn in high school? From direct experimentation with new and different experiences and from vicarious learning about the exploits of others. The more your freshman teenager (through looking older or through acceleration based on academic, athletic, or other ability) is thrown into the company of juniors and seniors, the steeper and swifter this learning curve becomes.
Finding a Place
Therefore, during freshman year in high school, support ways that your child can associate socially with same-age friends. At the same time, so that he or she can get a social foothold, insist that your teenager join some extracurricular group that first year. Being on an entry-class athletic team or being in band, for example, can immediately provide a group to which he or she can belong. The more disconnected and lonely an entering student is, the more likely it is that he or she will be befriended by students already on the social fringe with adjustment problems of their own.
To catch hold during the first year in high school, freshmen need their parents' supervisory support to help them learn to live within school rules, join an organized student group, and keep up with the more challenging academic work.
There's a lot of pressure to grow up fast when you're at the bottom of the age heap. Being told that you are “only a freshman” is hardly a compliment. No wonder growing up fast, by gathering knowledge and experience, is what many freshmen try to do. No wonder senior year is glamorized as the pinnacle of social power and sophistication. Seniors are supposed to know it all because they have experienced so much, and to have it all because now they “rule the school.”
Except, when students do get to senior year, the anticipated glamour is tarnished by the harsh reality. The greatest year in high school usually does not live up to its reviews. Now the teen must deal with letting go — of childhood friends, of high school, of home. He or she may never live in such a large community of friends again. And it will be many years before he or she is able to create an independent sense of home and family to rival the one being left behind.
Do not turn a teenager's bedroom to another use when he or she has moved out into an apartment or off to college, and do not get rid of old belongings left behind. Having a secure and familiar place in the family to return to when want or need arises makes it feel safer to leave.
Come high school, three grown-up activities are now within your teenager's reach, each one of which empowers your son or daughter, like a rocket, to be able to act in more adult ways. His or her desire for more independence is dramatically increased, particularly if two or more of these “rockets” fire off at once. Now you have a more headstrong teenager to deal with than you had before.
What are these three rockets to independence, and why are they so powerful?
Being old enough to drive a car causes the teenager to believe that this independent mobility means “I can come and go as I desire!”
Being old enough to hold a part-time job causes the teenager to believe that earning independent income means, “If I make my own money, then I can make my own choices!”
Being old enough to socially date and party causes the teenager to believe that going out means “If I can go out and take someone out, then I can act socially grown up.”
Although parents want their teenager to be able to do all three adult activities, they want these new freedoms — because freedoms are what they are — to be kept within responsible bounds. Thus, you let your adolescent know he or she can do none of these activities without your permission, which you will give only so long as he or she is responsibly taking care of business at home, at school, and out in the world.
What you don't want is for your teenager to combine all three grown-up freedoms into a lifestyle that takes over the young person's life. Thus, a part-time job pays for a car, a car enables dating, dating is expensive, and so more hours must be spent on the job. Who has time for chores or schoolwork now?