By: Hansa Bhargava, MD, FAAP
As a parent, it's difficult to watch your child struggle. At any age, you hurt for them. You want to help―but there comes a point when helping can be harmful.
Removing obstacles from their path may make life easier in the short term, but as they approach college and young adulthood, it could set them up for bigger problems.
So, how can you help your teenager learn to navigate life's obstacles? Here are some tips.
Change your focus. Instead of helping your kids "avoid difficulties," help them "get through difficulties." To do this, try to think of difficult circumstances as "teachable moments" for your child.
Avoid quick fixes. We've all experienced occasions when our children's stress became our stress, too. It's hard to hear that your son was picked last for a team in gym class, or that other girls chastised your daughter for her outfit. It sometimes seems tempting to deal with adversity by taking an easier road. Removing the child from that 'awful' school. Buying the trendy outfit.
Give your child the freedom to fail. This may just be the hardest thing to do; we don't want to see our kids fail. We may still call the high school teacher about a bad grade or keep track of our 18 year old's exams and doctors' appointments. But the biggest gift we can give our children is the freedom to fall, dust themselves off, and get back up again. This does not mean that we never extend a helping hand. It just means that we need to let them learn how to navigate and adapt so they'll be prepared. Life is bound to throw them some curve balls, and we aren't always going to be there.
Promote independence. Coach your child on how to talk with their teachers about a bad grades rather than doing it yourself. Encourage your college-bound kids to make their own appointments and remember their own schedules. They may miss appointments or oversleep for school, but that creates a learning opportunity. We know that in real life, if we miss an important meeting at work, there are usually consequences. Learning about this as a student is better than learning how to manage life and cope with difficulty as an adult.
Make college decisions together. What's most important to your child when it comes to choosing a college? Yes, I said your child. Not you. Many factors go into selecting one college over another, not just which school has the "superior academic reputation." What often sways the vote one way, or another are the basics: cost, distance, location, and size. What does your teen want? Is it different than what you want? Have conversations and listen. Learning your child's preferences at the outset will help all of you to narrow the search and come to a decision that all of you feel comfortable with.
Ask about mental health support on campus. The American College Health Association Survey on health showed that over 60% of kids in college have "overwhelming anxiety" at some point; and that the average time to access a counselor is 1 week. If you have a family history of mental health disorders, your child is a greater risk. The Jed Foundation provides a detailed guide for parents and students that includes questions to ask about the services and programs a college provides to help students manage their mental health and thrive in the campus environment. Download the guide and learn more at nami.org/collegeguide.
A Word About Test Scores:
Our culture is obsessed with numbers and data. In our jobs, many of us have a need to quantify and measure performance. Although standardized test scores like the SAT and ACT are important to some college admissions officers as indicators of a student's ability to do college-level school work under pressure, they do not define your child's intelligence, talent, or worth.
If your child is feeling ashamed about his or her test results, you must not let it take a downward spiral. Help your child put things into perspective. When the topic of 'success in life' is studied, it turns out that standardized test scores do not correlate with anything once the student graduates from college. Character traits such as resilience, optimism, and enthusiasm seem to guarantee success no matter what the person's SAT or ACT scores were.
Remember, there are many colleges that no longer require standardized test scores and many others that will accept your child, no matter what scores he or she has.
About Dr. Bhargava:
Hansa Bhargava, MD, FAAP is Senior Medical Director at WebMD, Senior Medical Advisor at Medscape, and Staff physician at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. At WebMD she leads strategy around pediatric content, helps to develop products such as apps and tools to help get timely relevant information to parents and oversees a team of medical experts to ensure accuracy and credibility of articles, videos, and other content. In her role as a spokesperson for these initiatives, she interacts with broadcast, radio, and print media, and hosts her own series at Medscape called 'Uncharted Medicine.' Within the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Bhargava is a member of the Council on Communications and Media Executive Committee. She is a graduate of University of Toronto Medical School and is board certified in Pediatrics. Her favorite role is to be a mom of two kids in Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter @hansabhargavaMD .