Preparing a Rising Freshman in 2021

August 19, 2021: By Ashley Agnew:

In a few short weeks high schools will be welcoming a class of freshman like none other: hundreds of students with the hormones of 14 year-olds and the social skills of a 7th grader thanks to the limiting requirements of the Covid pandemic. While parents are relieved that schools have, and are, taking the safety precautions necessary to keep students healthy, there is no denying that forced distance, mask covered expressions, and reduced physical and mental outlets have taken their toll on emerging young adults.

All humans strive for a sense of belonging, however the teenage years layer on the challenge of understanding and accepting one’s identity.  Personalities are still forming and with so many controllable attributes contributing to perceived character, it can be overwhelming. It is during these teen years that language and use of slang, sense of style and wardrobe, interests and extracurricular activities among others are so heavily judged by peer groups.  The pressure is so strong, in fact, that even the most confident aspiring adult can feel judged even when no judgement is being passed. In the pre-teen years some of these social factors are ironed out through things like play and adult intervention, however how will these youngsters fair when play is no longer of interest, and social interactions are monitored with peers rather than adults? The transition from middle school/junior high to high school may be a challenge if these obstacles are not addressed by a supportive, loving relation. Otherwise, social media sites will be the prime source of connection as teens search for belonging, receiving implicit socialization that may include unrealistic normative expectations.

Parents in this situation should be aware that it may be to their benefit to have what might be uncomfortable conversations with their rising freshmen prior to the start of the academic year.  Here are a few topics and conversation starters to broach before they become a socially traumatic event for your new high-schooler:

Changing Friend Groups: Your friends may have changed, and so have you.  You and your friends may see high school as a fresh start and that is great. Just be aware that this fresh start may include exposure to differing interests and expanded social groups.

A Mask is a Free Pass- Be Respectful: Without the luxury of seeing expressions, it can be hard to gauge the reactions and true emotions of others. The anticipation of these reactions act as a stern governor for the way we act toward people. Do not let this allow you to be cruel or disrespectful to your teachers or peers.

Social Media is Not A Game, Nor a Benchmark: For many high school marks the milestone kids have been waiting for to be given permission to enter the social media world.  Social media, however, does not often depict reality and this needs to be communicated.  For safety, social media accounts should be monitored, and the student should feel comfortable admitting if they are not ready for this responsibility.

Big Questions to Ask Your Teen: How Have the Past 18 months Changed the way you view friendships and school? What has stayed the same? What can you do to stay social safely if we go back to distancing? What supports can we provide as your guardians?


What Parents Can Expect

The past 18 months have been traumatic and new experiences may seem overwhelming, even if children don’t realize it.  The iconic teenager answer to the “how was your day” question of “fine”, story over, has not disappeared throughout the pandemic nor will it this school year as adolescents. They too, however, are impacted by headlines and protocol. They are navigating a balance between rigidity and chaos, many times feeling all alone, finding it easier to ignore that they are amidst massive events.  Pushing these feelings down can be like pushing a beach ball deeper into the pool- eventually they will burst up at the slightest release.  That said, parents can expect to see the slightest annoyance trigger an outburst in their teenagers as the overwhelm, confusion, and lack of control in the changing school atmosphere go unaddressed.

Daniel J. Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson share this piece of insight in their book “The Whole Brain Child”:

“When we don’t offer a place for children to express their feelings and recall what happened after an overwhelming event, their implicit-only memories remain in dis-integrated form, leaving the children with no way to make sense of their experience. But when we help our kids integrate their past into their present, they can then make sense of what’s going on inside them and gain control over how they think and behave.  The more you promote this type of memory integration in your child, the less often you will see irrational responses to what’s happening now that are really leftover reactions from the past.”


What Parents can Do:

Encourage Journaling. Journaling is a powerful tool allowing teens to tell their story without judgement and in their own words. For teenagers who are dealing with immense social pressure, the relief from externalizing challenging events is healing.  Require teens to journal for at least 20 minutes per day about anything they want.  The act of reflection alone will provide great benefits for these busy humans who often live moment-to-moment.

Positive Reminders. Remind children that it is encouraged to share their accomplishments even if they are seemingly small.  Acts of kindness are especially helpful to share, and it can be empowering to remind children that by choosing to be kind, they have influenced their networks in a positive way. Additionally, providing acts of kindness can actually have a better impact on mood than receiving acts of kindness- what a bargain! (read more about this in The Kindness Cure) Everyone wins. When teens are at school and feel the urge to act out, nudge them to instead seek out an act of kindness. They may roll their eyes, but in some ways it will stick and perhaps a welcomed distraction the next time they are in the midst of rage.

Don’t Be Dismissive. In adolescence the areas of the brain than control logic and reasoning are still developing, and for that matter are always plastic.  When your teen comes home sharing what you may think of as petty news, practice active listening and hear them out. You never know what bigger issue is hiding behind the “Sarah was wearing the same sweater as me” disaster, and this is their way of letting you in. Embrace it.


We are sending our best wishes for success, strength, and compassion to all students, parents, guardians and those in academia as we enter yet another uncertain school year.