A+ Advice for Parents

Q: My usually confident daughter Charisse just entered middle school and is under a lot of different pressures, including from new peers. It's hard talking with her about it, but I sense her dilemma. She would be mortified if I meet with the counselor for advice. Any thoughts on steps I can take?

A: When teens -- or anyone, really -- feels pressure, there's a sense of being rushed or forced into making choices or decisions before we've had a chance to think them through. The transition to middle school often brings students a new set of pressures and stressors to deal with, says educator Annie Fox, author of "Middle School Confidential," a series of graphic novels and apps for teens (Free Spirit Publishing Inc.).

Not all pressures on teens are bad, says Fox. For example, a teacher might urge a student to take an advanced class because the teacher believes the student could do well. That kind of push gives the student a chance to stretch herself and open doors to more opportunities.

"After thinking about it, she might realize, 'That's a good thing. I'll try it,'" explains Fox.

Or a friend might encourage her to go out and do something fun when she's feeling down, and this is "also a good thing," says Fox.

Pressures from new friends who encourage a student to do something that makes her feel uncomfortable or that go against what she believes in or knows is wrong, "can make her feel at war with herself, like she's being pulled in two directions at once," says Fox. "This can leave a teen confused and thinking there aren't any good options."

The key is to help Charisse develop a set of tools to analyze and deal with stress and pressure in healthy ways. Fox advises teens to master these four strategies:

First, identify the cause: Tell Charisse to be "really clear about what's bothering her by putting it into words," says Fox. For example, she could try completing this sentence: "Someone wants ... but it doesn't feel right because ... "

Second, teach Charisse to step away from the situation. Take a break. Play with the cat. Go for a walk with the dog.

"Learning to relax under pressure can help calm the body while opening the mind to possible solutions," says Fox.

Third, have your daughter weigh her options. "If Charisse feels torn between someone else's expectations of her and what she wants for herself, have her write down both sides of the tug of war, being fully honest in the process," advises Fox. "Seeing the pros and cons can help her figure out what's right for her."

Fourth, show her how to take a stand. Helping Charisse articulate what she does and doesn't believe in will help her state it clearly and confidently to others. "It's important for teens to be clear on their values and where they draw the line," explains Fox. "It's not their job to please everybody, rather to make choices (online and off) that increase their own self-respect. When teens' decisions reflect who they really are, they start to feel more at peace with themselves. They get stronger against negative pressures."

Fox offers teens and their parents guidance on a range of topics and answers questions on her podcast, FamilyConfidential.com, and her advice blog, AnnieFox.com.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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