On any given year, the very first day of high school comes with plenty of excitement and uncertainty for teens and parents alike. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the beginning of this school year looks like no other. Many schools have canceled traditional summer activities like sports workouts and band camps that make it easier for rising ninth graders to build new friendships and get to know teachers and coaches before the first bell rings.
"It's incredibly challenging," says John Duffy, a clinical psychologist who works with teens, consults with educators and is the author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. "There's a desire to go back and, coupled with that, there is also this anxiety of going back."
As we slide into a new academic year where face masks and laptops might be the most critical back-to-school needs, here are six ways to prepare your kid for the first day of high school.
Give your teen agency.
Teenagers should be part of the conversation as families decide how students will learn this year, says Ana Homayoun, founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting, which works with parents, educators, and students. Make decisions based on your teen's learning styles, interests, social, and emotional wellness and safety.
"Creating a space where teens feel a sense of agency—that they have a choice, and they can be part of the solution—can help them feel empowered in a time that is otherwise overwhelming," says Homayoun, who also is author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.
Including teens in the decision-making comes with some added benefits for parents too. "Parents don't have to take on the burden of trying to figure out solutions for their teens as well, and navigating this together helps with critical thinking, negotiation, flexibility and adaptability—all critical for long-term resiliency," says Homayoun.
Encourage kids to put themselves out there.
Socially, the first day of high school can be nerve-wracking on its own, even during normal times. Now, not only have teens missed out on months of interaction with peers since school shut down in the spring, they may be thrown into an entirely new group of students in high school. Encourage teens to go out on a limb and introduce themselves to classmates, says Duffy. Parents can help by asking their kids open-ended questions such as, "What would you say to a classmate or group of classmates who you want to get to know?" Remind them that they likely have plenty of material for small talk—and that everybody else is nervous too.
"Normally kids are like, 'What am I going to talk about?'" says Duffy. "You have months of data to talk about. You've got a pandemic to talk about. You've got the strangest year of your life."
Emphasize that we all are learning.
Let kids know they aren't alone — and that we're all figuring out the school year together, says Duffy. Encourage them to talk to a teacher or advisor if they have questions. And make sure they know they can always talk to you. Tell them that you expect the process will be constantly in flux all year, he says, but you'll be with them every step of the way.
Give them permission to be freaked out.
For students who are attending in-person classes, acknowledge just how weird the experience might be as everyone stays socially distanced and wears masks. Before the first day, encourage them to envision what it will be like, says Duffy.
For teenagers who are especially anxious about returning to the classroom, introduce them to apps like Headspace or Calm where they can learn breathing techniques and help them find other strategies that might relax them in the moment. "Some kids can listen to Chance the Rapper and find their relaxation through that," says Duffy.
Help them map out their virtual learning day.
If your child will be learning remotely, Duffy recommends parents and students sit down to figure out their daily schedule. Fit in time for school work, meals, exercise and other activities, including connecting with their friends on social media. "This isn't a one-size-fits-all situation," says Duffy. "Work with your child and talk about laying out their day."
Don\’t gloss over the missed milestones.
Many sports seasons, homecomings, proms, and school musicals won't happen this year—at least in the traditional way. Don't try to soften the blow, says Duffy. Instead, take the opportunity to teach your kids about resilience. Let them know that you're also disappointed and that you'll look for alternatives, but that it might be a year before they can do what they love.
"Kids are smart and discerning, and they know," says Duffy. "They know this is disappointing and could break really bad for them. To try to tell them it's anything else dilutes their trust in you."
Stop worrying about what everyone else is doing.
It's hard not to constantly compare your choices with what your friends are doing—or what your teenager's friends are doing. Don't, says Homayoun. It's not helpful for you or your teenager as they prepare for this big step.
"There are a host of factors at play around wellness and safety, and families should feel confident to do what is best for their children," she says. "We're in a moment of many unknowns, so taking time to step back and evaluate options in a framework that is student-centered and focused on student engagement, learning, and wellness provides an effective north star for decisions."