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Making High School Count: Identity Crisis or Identity Capital

Let’s face it--for students, high school is fast and furious, and if they can get through the week without forgetting a test and ticking off their girlfriend, they have achieved success.  It is easy to watch the awesome amount of energy that these kids expend on just "getting through” and resign to leave them alone.  They have enough on their plates, and your guidance is often less than appreciated.

The reality is, the years we conscript to high school are also the training ground towards adulthood. And It's pretty hard to suddenly convince the adult world that you are ready to be of value to them if you have a resume at graduation that only consists of things like having the same boyfriend for 8 months straight, getting in at least 2 showers a week, and holding down a part time job for the summer (that your cousin helped you get).

High school can and should be deliberate, a time to build what has been termed "identity capital".  Identity capital is defined as doing things that add value to who you are and doing things that are an investment into who you want to be next. That seems like a super-practical, fantastic idea to us adults, of course: build that resume, begin to shape your goals, find some backbone. But for high school students, this suggestion of getting identity capital isn't immediately clear or practical, especially when they are in the middle of their own identity crisis.  Drama and hormones run a lot of the show, and immediacy trumps "character building".

How do parents help their students buy into the theory that high school counts?   I have compiled 5 ideas that I think may help you help your teen get some identity capital.

1) ASPIRE. Have a planned discussion where together you list goals that can’t suddenly be achieved once senior year comes.  Building relationships with teachers over the years to get those stand-out recommendation letters, for example. Or developing solid study skills to master that ACT or developing a resume which displays integrity and commitment that he and his dream colleges are proud to claim.  AND THEN...

2) HOLD BACK. Establish "nagging boundaries" early on.  Decide together what your expectations are for grades, household responsibilities, jobs, college readiness, etc. and then ONLY nag within the agreed-upon times and violations.  When your daughter is chilling in front of the TV after a long day, this is not the time to let loose with a sarcastic comment about finding something constructive to do. 

3) EMPOWER. Decide within yourself what to entrust to your student.  Do an honest assessment of your own child and empower him wherever you can. Then you can choose your battles wisely and let natural consequences take over at other times.  Maybe you enforce the value of community service, but you let them choose how and what to be involved in.  Or you guide the academic choices but let them choose their extracurricular activities. 

4) GUIDE.  Encourage friendships and activities that are heavy with motivated peers.  We all know you can't and shouldn't choose your child’s friends or activities, but early on we can encourage good solid relationships and have discussions about toxic ones.  "The drive to be popular is probably the core value of most adolescents—and they often simply don’t realize what shaky ground they’re standing on when they take on that value." points out one article from So, if success for your teen means being the best bum in a recalcitrant group, no nagging will convince her that it is cool to build that identity capital. 

5) COMMUNICATE.  Find a timeline that you all can agree on as a family (I have one listed on my website) and touch base once a month at an agreed-upon meeting time to re-assess where you are in the process.  Use this time to be an active listener and ask about things like goals and dreams and obstacles that may be causing problems. 


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