Back to School: Creating a Supportive and Structured Environment for Adolescents
Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys
It’s that time of year: school is starting again! As their children navigate the start of the school year, parents may grapple with how to set their kids up for success: academically, socially, emotionally, and physically. In this blog, Senior Clinical Therapist Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC shares tips for parents seeking to create a supportive and structured environment for their child transitioning back to school.
In my experience working with adolescents, I’ve found that kids do well when they’re able to internalize their external environment. By creating and upholding an external structure for our kids, they will internalize that structure and eventually have less need for outside systems of support. When I’ve worked with teenagers who have not had a structured life, their mental, relational, and academic worlds become chaotic.
In childhood and adolescence, this structure on the outside is critical because it can go from the outside in. Once that structure is rooted inside a person, they can create structure for themselves as adults. The hope is that when they someday leave home or treatment and launch into adulthood, they can create that structure from the inside out, including at and around school.
Structure also has an impact on the brain. It creates a level of discipline and encourages the brain to focus on one thing at a time, complete tasks, and move on to the next thing. This is crucial for getting the full benefits out of school and learning.
Give your child the opportunity to help create structure. Be transparent and invite your child to work with you. For example, you could say: “Because you’re on screens a lot each day, I would like for you to include some outside activity throughout the week. Let’s find a way to incorporate this that makes sense to you.” Then, have them come to you with a proposal, laying out the time and structure they feel is appropriate, given the guidelines you went over.
Involving your child in creating structure doesn’t mean you will rubber-stamp whatever they say, but it does get them to start thinking critically. It puts them in a unique position to feel empowered and have some say in their day. It encourages creativity in coming up with a routine. It also gets them to think about negotiations.
As the parent, be ready to make concessions with your child. This helps them feel heard and empowered and sends the message that you’re willing to be flexible. That might mean starting slightly more rigid in the negotiation process than you otherwise would and then becoming more flexible, giving your child more of a sense of empowerment. These are all useful tools for your child as they develop and eventually face negotiations in other areas of life.
Also, don’t be afraid to offer external incentives, especially when starting a new routine or pattern that they don’t feel inspired to follow. Some ideas for these external incentives include doing something fun and out of the ordinary. Go camping for the weekend, give them a ride to spend time with friends, cook their favorite meal, or have a movie night with their favorite treats.
A common oversight as parents is to think you’re creating an emotionally safe environment for your kids simply by asking them how they’re doing. While that is one element of it, the larger element is to lead by example. Role model what it is to be open and share your feelings with your child, your partner, and in other relationships. Talk about and take ownership of the challenges you face. Foster an environment of emotional openness in the family. Speak up about your difficulties and frustrations.
Your child will feel safer and more comfortable in opening up emotionally if you are doing the same. Demonstrate what it is to be mature, vulnerable, and accountable for your emotional experiences. By making the “How are you?” or “How was your day?” conversations one-sided, you’re making your child responsible for leading the conversation and emotional sharing. Start out with how you are feeling; describe what happened for you today. And then ask your child.
Some teenagers may struggle with the discipline or drive to create structure around their own interests. As the parent, you may know the benefit it has in their life. You see the way they feel better, are more energized, or are more stimulated when participating in certain extracurriculars. Again, provide the external structure while supporting their independence within a certain interest.
For example, tell them, “I really want you to keep playing your instrument because you’ve told me and shown that it is your passion. You always feel better after playing. What can we do to help you pursue that?” They will then feel the freedom to choose what they want within the container you’re giving them. Whether it’s finding a tutor, providing them with certain software, or meeting with someone who’s doing what they love, you’re helping them feel empowered to design a plan to pursue their interests.
The obvious choice is to get kids out of the house, interacting with friends, connecting with family, and pursuing other interests. I would also encourage parents to accept that their child will likely be required to be in front of a lot of screens at school. That doesn’t necessarily mean their screen time needs to be severely limited outside of school. Continue to implement limits you would otherwise—no screens at the dinner table, when conversing with family, and when they are supposed to be outside or studying—but remember that some time for recreational screen use may be appropriate at sanctioned times during the day.
Social media, digital technology, and screen use is not going anywhere. If kids learn to use digital technology and social media within a clear structure, they will be better able to uphold a sense of structure around it on their own in the future.
When parents handle situations with grace and flexibility, it trickles down isomorphically to their kids. When parents role model what it is to be patient, understanding, and compassionate toward family, co-workers, teachers, strangers in the grocery line, and humanity in general, the result is more tolerance and resilience in kids. My hope is that even when youth are struggling, they can still step into becoming leaders in the world with a higher degree of tolerance, flexibility, and resilience.
Article originally published September 2020.