by Robina Riccitiello
Parents can help teens manage stress better by being supportive, not asking about homework every time they see their teens, by letting them stay up late sometimes – because they just have to – and by giving them the occasional day off, according to the San Francisco teens at the Parents’ Coalition’s teen panel in March.
“I’m a junior, thinking about my future. My parents do a good job not being like helicopters or over my shoulder. But I’m stressed out with every decision I make that’s going to affect my future,” one teen told the crowd at the annual event, held at the Jewish Community High School. His parents help by reassuring him when he gets stressed, he said.
Teens said they get squeezed for time as high school progresses, trying to fit in tough academic schedules, sports, extra-curricular activities. One boy said parents sometimes compare him to his friends and that adds to the pressure he’s already putting on himself. “I feel enough internal pressure to not need any external pressure!”
Parents can help by stepping back and not offering constant reminders about the work that needs to be done, the teens agreed. Reminders about bedtime aren’t always helpful either. “Sometimes kids just need to stay up late. Respecting that would be awesome,” one student said. Instead of complaining about the late night, parents can offer a cup of tea or a snack to help the teen get through a tough night of studying.
Timing is everything, the teens agreed, noting that reminders about extra projects – like college essays or SAT prep — are best not offered in the midst of an intense study session. “It’s good to assume good will, but sometimes these questions can be saved for another day,” a teen advised. “If your child’s super fixated on one thing, don’t add to the stress by asking about SAT studying.”
Parents often know the best way of calming their teens. But sometimes in the heat of the moment, they can forget their best intentions. “I throw tantrums sometimes when I’m stressed,” one student said. “It’s important for the parents to be the bigger man and be supportive” rather than allowing the situation to escalate into a big family fight. The teens advised parents to ask students during a calm, non-stressful moment how they can help when the pressure adds up. And making a few unexpected decisions may help teens get through stressful times. “One of the nice things my Mom’s done for me is let me not go to school” once in a while, one student said, noting that those “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” days helped her get through a tough school year.
Another teen said he bonds with his Dad by making bathroom jokes that crack them both up, easing the parent-teen strain that can build up in the high school years. “You guys put so much time and energy into us that you want to get your money’s worth,” he said with a laugh.
Parents and guardians also need to understand that sometimes teens just don’t want to talk and to try not to take it personally. “When I’m exhausted or stressed, there are times when I just don’t want to talk,” one boy said. Another teenager noted, “I can’t focus on a conversation sometimes.” And even compliments can backfire sometimes. “Praise can sometimes come off as stressful,” a boy explained. “Like when you say two weeks later, ‘You did so well on your report card.’”
The teens reminded parents and guardians that failure can be a learning experience for teens.
“Failure is incredibly underrated,” one teen said. “It’s something you need to let happen sometimes.”
One teen remembered getting a bad first quarter report card after slacking off. His Dad’s angry response helped kick him into gear. “He showed me it was wrong and said he was disappointed. That made me more independent and pushed me.”
The teens said they want their parents to show confidence in them and their abilities to take care of their own problems. “Letting them fail and letting them fix it themselves shows them that you trust their abilities,” a student advised.
Sleep is a big discussion point among parents and teens. Parents try to remind teens that their teachers will cut them some slack if they can’t finish something and have to go to bed. “They say the teachers will understand, but they don’t,” one teen said, noting, “I don’t get a lot of sleep and I’m fine with it.”
The teens on the panel, who came from private schools throughout San Francisco, said that parents’ sleep goals for their teenagers are just not realistic.
“Not getting enough sleep is a matter of necessity, not a choice,” one boy said.
There’s a lot of pressure on today’s teens, but they find happiness through sports or art or being with friends, they said.
“When I’m doing something I love, like finishing a great workout or winning a race, I feel awesome, like I’m on top of the world,” one boy said.
“I’m happiest when I’m productive,” another teen reported.
“I’m happy when I’m in a light and easygoing environment – in the moments when I’m not worrying about things,” one girl said.
In response to parents’ questions – which were written down during a break and read by the moderators – teens said they have had issues with friends acting as bad influences. In one case, a girl’s parents told her they thought one friend was “toxic” and, after some soul-searching, she agreed and distanced herself. But in many cases, the teens said they resented it when their parents were judgmental about other kids at school. And they advised parents to avoid gossiping about other kids.
“It’s important that parents not judge their kids’ friends,” one girl said. “People sometimes judge girls about how they dress,” she said, and that can lead to mistaken impressions.
One of the youngest panel members agreed, noting, “Face value is not everything!”
The teens agreed that the traditional high school first love relationship is not very common at San Francisco high schools.
“There’s an extreme hookup culture,” one boy told the parents. The teens defined “hook up” as anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse. The key is that it’s physical intimacy that’s not connected to a committed relationship.
Drinking, too, is common at city high schools, the teens said. One senior suggested that when teens have some experience drinking in high school, they may handle drinking in a more adult way when they get to college.
“People do it for fun,” one girl said, and to escape some of the pressures in their lives. “Drinking is one way to not think about those issues.”
The teen panel is known for offering straight-from-the students impressions and experiences and parents often attend to get a glimpse into the life of the average high school student, in cases where their own students don’t share many details. The teen panel, moderated and led by pediatrician Mikiko Huang and psychologist Kathy Vila, brings together a group of San Francisco high school students several times a year to meet and discuss issues that affect them. The experience culminates with the teen panel held in front of an audience of parents and guardians … and occasionally a few fellow teens.
In case parents think their kids aren’t listening to their constant stream of advice and information, one girl offered some reassurance, saying that parents and guardians lead by example and kids’ values are shaped by what they see at home. “You are the top two examples we follow,” she said.