Parenting a high school senior

Q: During the past 3 months, my straight A daughter, who is a senior in high school, has become a C student. Her grades started slipping when she started dating -- before then she had no real interest in boys. She says she is 18 and can do as she likes. We have always been a close family and are just worried, not about our daughter growing up, but about her future. If you have any suggestions about how to take care of this I would appreciate it greatly.

-Concerned Dad
(note from karen: this question was edited for brevity)

A: It can be really painful to witness our offspring learning from experience ... even excruciating at times. We can feel so powerless -- like our children are slipping from our grasp and there's nothing we can do about it. It's easy to fear for their future. We've seen so much more than they have, and we worry that a few poor choices now can irrevocably change the course of their lives.

At one level, she is technically an adult and can make some of her own legal decisions. However, she's still in high school, and still living with you, and you are still a very powerful influence in her life, whether she admits that openly or not. In my opinion, the most effective way to wield that influence is to share your concerns, rather than trying to lay down the law.

So take her out for lunch or on a walk. Tell her that you love her, and are very proud of the choices she's made so far in life, and how responsible she has been. Tell her that it would ease your parental conscience if you could share a few additional things for her to think about: You've probably already thought about this stuff, but do you think you might be able to just humor me and hear me out?

Try to keep it brief and to the point, without overdramatizing things. Here's one example of how the dialogue might go. Hopefully you can easily adapt it to reflect your own concerns:

Honey, I know this whole boyfriend thing is still sort of new territory, and I've noticed that your grades have slipped a bit since you started seeing Joe. I'm wondering if that could have any impact on your college plans. What do you think?

Then let her talk, without interrupting, until she's finished. Repeat what she has shared with you to make sure you have understood it.

Okay, honey, let me see if I have this right. You feel like it's not a big deal that your grades are slipping right now, because you've already been accepted into college, and pretty much everyone has senioritis this semester. Joe is your first real boyfriend, and you are still sort of figuring out how to balance spending time with him and getting your schoolwork done. You really like doing things with him and his mom, and that seems like more fun than anything else right now. Did I miss anything?

Let her fill in any blanks, and then share your next concern.

Here are my concerns. I could be wrong about this, but I think some colleges do request a transcript for the spring semester, so grades might still matter. Also, your mom and I are feeling a little ... well, I guess maybe clingy is sort of the right word ... because you are our baby, and soon you won't be living at home with us anymore, and we will miss you. We kind of had this vision in our heads of all these family things we could do together before you go. But of course we would never want to force any of that on you -- that would spoil any chance we had at having fun together!

I know you are a smart and responsible girl, and I know you will strike a balance that allows you to walk forward into a successful future. Do you think you might be willing to brainstorm some ways that we could do more things as a family, though? How would you feel about us all going to dinner this weekend ... Joe included. Think maybe his mom would like to come, too?

She might say "Uhh, no Dad. Thanks but no thanks." And that's okay. You've still accomplished a lot with this conversation. You've reiterated your faith in her sensibility and responsibility. You've reminded her of her strengths and successes. In essence, you've reminded her who she really is, and by doing so, you've inspired her to be her best self.

You've also given her some room to find balance in her own time and way, by taking a longer range view rather than pressuring her to make a change right this minute. You've given her some things to think about in a way that allows her to save face. You've expressed confidence in her, not fear. And you've been vulnerable by sharing that you are already feeling some sadness about her leaving home someday.

Because you've been respectful and reasonable, you've opened a door for her to walk through anytime she wants your help sorting something out. Undoubtedly she's feeling some internal ambivalence as she navigates this new terrain, and you've just made yourself a safe sounding board. She might know deep inside that she only has a few more months before she leaves for college, and she might be trying to eek every minute of time with him that she can get. She might already be feeling uneasy about her grades, and now she can feel safe sharing her feelings with you.

You've also taken rebellion out of her equation. She won't be distracted from her own discernment while trying to prove anything to you. You have positioned yourself as a safe and compassionate resource -- an ally and a helper, not a judge or probation officer. And that's the best way to maintain a connection with our teenagers as they leave the nest.

I hope this helps. Let me know how it goes.

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