How to Help Your Teen Navigate High School Stereotypes

In this week's 'Teen Talk', a recent high school graduate explains why navigating social expectations is complicated and how parents can help teens define their interests despite labels and stereotypes.

illustration of teen on bed with emojis of different extracurricular activities popping up on his phone
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

Teens often feel defined by their friend groups. The captain of the football team sits with the other athletes in the cafeteria and wears his varsity jacket in the hallways like a badge of honor. The theater kids recite lines together between classes and hang out to watch classic movies on weekends. But maybe that football player also loves practicing the violin, or the star of the school play would rather try out for the soccer team next year. It can be difficult for a teen to express interests outside of what they've been known to do for years. They may be concerned that straying from what's expected of them may make them the talk of the school—that they may lose friends over their decision to join a different club or sports team. This can be a huge confidence crusher.

As a parent, it's possible to help your teen build confidence and balance their interests with their social circles. In order to do this, it's important for you to understand what we are thinking and why we hesitate to stray from what our friends expect from us.

It’s Scary to Try Something New

When I was in high school, I was heavily encouraged to play football. My parents told me football would keep me in shape and my friends were also trying out for the team and wanted me to join. I wanted to be a part of this brotherhood and continue to build these relationships, but I never had much interest in the sport. I joined the team my freshman year and wanted to quit several times since I had lackluster feelings about going to practice. I stuck it out for the season, but the following year, I decided to try something new.

Instead of playing football, I joined the student council. I was intimidated to quit the team and surround myself with a completely new group of people. I wasn't sure if my friends would judge me for quitting the team or make fun of me for choosing something academic over athletic. But I'm glad I did it. This was a decision that I did on my own will and accord. I tried something new based on my own interests and regardless of my friend's approval and learned that they were actually very supportive because they knew I did what was best for me. This former "jock" is more than just that, and I'm glad I was not confined to a label.

With our parents' help, teens can understand that high school stereotypes are temporary and easy to leave behind after graduation. We can learn who we are and what we like earlier, which will set us up for success after graduation.

We Want You on Our Team

Even if you don't understand why I think quitting football to join the student council will cause me drama, just be there for me to talk to. Since I feel like my friends will be angry when I break the news, I need you there by my side supporting my decision. Ask me about my new interests and talk me through this transition, but don't be overbearing or pressure me to change my decision. I am likely dealing with that pressure from my friends and want your support in trying something new. You have to understand that I am growing up and that I am beginning to let my own passions guide me.

I’m Still Figuring out Who I Am

I wish my parents would have helped me understand and reinforced the idea that no one can tell me who I am, what I will be, or where I'm going in life. I am whoever I define myself to be. Even if my friends and interests change, I'm the only person who can define me and I have the power to grab life by the horns and take charge.

There's a lot of pressure for teens to be who their friends and classmates expect them to be. They can feel boxed in and lost as their interests change, but parents can give their teens the confidence to try something new. Help equip your child with the knowledge and skillsets necessary to overcome hurdles such as social expectations and pressures.

Brandon Jackson is a 20-year-old from Columbia, South Carolina. He is a junior at Winthrop University and is majoring in Business Administration, concentrating in Human Resource Management, with the intent to go into school counseling.

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