A few weeks ago, on our last summer afternoon, my girls and I escaped the heat by heading to our local movie theater. As we stood waiting in line at the snack counter, my soon-to-be freshman took hold of her younger sister’s wheelchair, took the movie tickets from my hand, and called over her shoulder, “I got Zoe, Mom, we’ll go grab our seats.”
Zoe smiled and waved while I stood stunned, watching my oldest daughter making her way to the theater, pushing Zoe, weaving through the crowds with confidence. Once she reached our theater, I could imagine her carefully helping Zoe out of her wheelchair and into her seat. I knew Zoe felt thrilled, and I was too. This was my girl, doing what she should do: Growing up and letting me know that she is ready for more.
We spent a lot of time together, sharing this summer of anticipation that would be forever marked by her transition into high school. These are just some of the things she taught me.
1. "I want you to expect more from me, and then remind me I can do it." High school teachers already know this truth, and that is why they come on so strong the first week of school. So parents, be ready. Do our teens get overwhelmed? Sure, especially when everything is new and expectations are higher. Our teens are ready for more, but that doesn't mean they possess the confidence to match. Create opportunities to build confidence, pointing out small successes whenever possible.
2. "I need to stay socially connected, so don't take my phone away." Teens experience a huge social shift as they start high school. Some friendships fade with the transition to a new school, and new classes and clubs that can leave teens feeling vulnerable and disconnected until they settle in. In our home, we place our iPhones on the kitchen charger at bedtime, and the rest of the time we all try to follow basic phone use etiquette. It's tempting to take the phone away as a form of discipline, but that’s how she connects to her peers, and teens have a strong need for connection.
3. "There are big things happening in the world, and I still need to talk about them." Most teens today get their news, both current events and pop culture, through the digital stream of Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. We still watch the news together and share a daily paper, but most breaking news my daughter sees first online and sometimes when she's alone. It's important to discuss the big topics—especially the biggest, most violent, sensitive, and provocative issues in person to make sure teens have a true sense of understanding and that you have addressed any concerns that may be troubling to them. ( Think ISIS, Ferguson, Ebola and yes, even 50 Shades of Grey.)
4. "I still want to hang out with my family sometimes, even if I don't act like it." Just because your teen looks so comfy just hanging out in her room, doesn't mean she wants to be alone. In fact, it gets lonely. Our family time isn't always about going out to dinner or shopping. We do a lot of kitchen table game time, movie time at home, or we hang out together in the pool. Once you get past the initial resistance, laughter and good family fun will follow. Eventually, the resistance falls away.
5. "Your hugs, your touch can still make me feel better." Let's face it: Life is busy. Sometimes family schedules can conflict and so much communication today takes place via technology. Our teens are walking around in these adult bodies, and sometimes we forget that they are still forging their way, trying to figure out how to de-stress and carry on conversations IRL. Teens are often touch deprived. When was the last time you hugged your teen, snuggled for just a moment together on the couch, or even held hands? Begin slowly. Reintroducing affection to your daily routine it is one of the fastest way to reduce stress and boost both physical and emotional health.
It is late when I enter my daughter's room after bedtime. I sit, listening to her talk about her day. Eventually I lay my head onto her extra pillow. It is hesitation I hear at first, and then her voice grows stronger and then smoother. High school is hard, but she is finding her way.
Her hand reaches for mine, and our fingers find their familiar places as they wrap around each other. We lay connected as her breathing slows.
I close my own eyes, remembering my once-little girl, with her copper color curls that would fly as she ran. The way she hid behind my legs, on the school sidewalk at the start of kindergarten.
We do all we can to prepare our kids for adulthood, pushing them out into the world when really we want to pull them back in for just a little longer. We prepare them to go out on their own, hoping still they will keep us close.
Her fingers are still tightly wound around mine, so I don't move. I know that years from now, she will be gone, finding her way in the world with her confidence in full bloom. It will be this moment I will miss—the simple joy of being the lucky one—to hold her hand late into the dark of night.
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