I spend most of my day listening. As a high school guidance counselor, I encourage teenagers to talk. Feeling stressed, they say, is their automatic response to demanding teachers, parents’ high expectations and the drama of shifting friendship alliances.
Daily dilemmas and problems affect everyone: the terrified boy who just heard rumors he was going to be jumped after school, the teary-eyed girl whose teacher embarrassed her in front of the class, the endless “he said-she said” conflicts, the bewildering symptoms of panic attacks, the anxiety of constant testing and fears of not measuring up, the distress of being harassed or bullied, the complications of two separate homes.
One after the other — the cutters who want to stop the pain, the abused who suddenly wear clothes that reveal their bruises, the pregnant girls filled with remorse and indecision, the depressed who write suicidal intentions in their English essays, the bulimics who can’t resist their compulsion.
For many teenagers, high school is the worst time in their lives. In a huge school of 3,000 or more students, it’s easy to feel lost in a sea of bodies and faces, all seemingly bigger, smarter and more attractive. Everything is intensified, including loneliness and depression.
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But it is possible to get through happily and successfully. Based on four decades of observation and intervention, following are my top 10 suggestions for a smooth (less bumpy, anyway) high school experience:
1. Make a connection. Joining a club or sport (or both) is the best way to feel included and involved. A strong support group of even a few good friends defeats alienation.
2. Communication is the best problem solver. Talking it out clears up confusion, uncertainty and misunderstandings. Find a mediator, if necessary. (Parents are not good mediators — they are not objective.)
3. Accept the fact that life is not fair. There will always be those who have more and look better. The earlier this concept is understood, the easier to ward off jealousy and envy. Repeat 100 times, “I might not have everything I want, but I have everything I need.”
4. Attitude is everything. Rudeness, disrespect, defiance, and temper tantrums might feel good at the moment, but will only cause hostile reactions. Polite behavior will bring favorable results. Practice eye contact and a firm handshake. Apologize when necessary.
5. Observe people who appear confident and self-assured. Imitating their mannerisms, gestures, posture, and tone of voice will assist in overcoming a shy and timid nature.
6. Hating a teacher is not a good reason to fail a class. Refusing to complete assignments or follow directions will not punish the teacher. It’s a huge leap in maturity to finally understand that learning is possible even if the teacher is unlikable.
7. Drop the phrase, “I’ve never been good at …” tests, math, spelling, whatever. Using these words repeatedly makes it true, limiting any possibility of future achievement. Listen for negative self-talk and immediately substitute a realistic positive comment.
8. A broken heart will mend eventually. Experience is the only way to learn that recovery after a breakup is indeed possible. The intensity of first love is very strong; do not even attempt to remain “good friends” until you can see the other person without a stomach lurch.
9. Suicide is not the answer. Understand that life won’t always seem so awful, that troubles today might look and feel less overwhelming tomorrow. Even though they can’t fix all problems, there are many adults at school who will listen with compassion and empathy.
10. Just do it! Laziness is not a permanent condition like height or eye color. Success means doing whatever has to be done, when it has to be done, whether you feel like it or not.
Bonus tip: Practice deep breathing. (Check Google for proper technique.) Mastering this skill will enable you to fall back to sleep, ease tension before a test and relax during moments of anxiety.
The energy of the high school environment is exciting and stimulating. But watch out — that energy can turn positive or negative in an instant. Always be aware of your direction, and pay attention to your own life lessons.
Harriet Levy worked for 35 years in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.