How to Help Your Kid Survive High School and Whatever Comes Next

Here’s what to say instead of badgering your already stressed-out teen about college apps.

Teenage boy looking nervous
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AaronAmat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

“We are approaching college application season and the pressure of being a teenager and balancing your education and your future right now is really hard.” This comes from Aria, a high school senior outside of Chicago who appeared on a recent episode of How To! Like so many of her peers, Aria was already feeling anxious about the future even before the world as we knew it fell apart. How can high school seniors like Aria apply to college, survive remote learning, and feel secure in her future? Moreover, what can we as parents say, given that “it’s gonna be OK” just doesn’t seem to cut it right now?

On the episode, Eve Ewing, a multitalented poet, author, and sociologist, tackles these seemingly impossible questions with unique insight. A professor and former public school teacher, Eve knows the education system well (she wrote the book Ghosts in the Schoolyard and was an adviser on the recent podcast Nice White Parents). But more than that, she knows how to reframe the future in a way that will help your kid chill out—but stay motivated and ready for whatever comes next. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles Duhigg: Aria, what have you been feeling lately?

Aria: It feels like you have to figure out at 17, 18 years old what you want to do for the rest of your life. Thousands of dollars are going to be put into that interest with college, so I need to make sure that that’s exactly what I want to do. Also, being not only a Black girl but just a girl, I feel like there’s a dichotomy between being feminine and intelligent—you can either like biology or like to do winged eyeliner. That’s something that I experienced so many times just growing up, and it makes it really hard to find my identity.

I think a lot of the pressure that I feel is not just from my family. It’s the entire world. Growing up as a teenager in this time, your access to social media is immense. All the time I can go on social media and see other people’s lives. People succeed on social media, and so when you see that constantly, it culminates in a feeling that you have to succeed all the time.

Charles: Eve, tell me a little bit about your high school experiences. Did you feel particularly anxious about the future with pressures of college or social media?

Eve Ewing: I did not. I think that I often made a lot of really bad decisions in high school. I was the president of no clubs. I didn’t check a lot of the boxes. My mom didn’t go to college—I was raised by my mom growing up—and I think that I was kind of lackadaisical about college. I’m going to admit something that’s probably going to be horrifying to Aria, which is that I applied to exactly one college. I got really, really lucky that I got accepted and it was a good fit for me—so much so that I’m actually a professor there now.

But I have a lot of thoughts about the stress that teenagers are feeling today. We didn’t have the technology to be posting pictures of so many things on social media. But I remember that the analog version of those feelings, which for us came in magazines. Particularly as a Black girl growing up, I often felt actually pretty invisible in the media that I consumed. But I understand this sense of being hypervisible, that everybody is watching you all the time and you’re constantly being invited to compare yourself to other people. The inescapability of it has to feel really scary. Overall, I think that as Black people in particular social media makes it very hard for us to manage our exposure to trauma.

Aria: Yes. I completely agree.

Charles: What are ways that teens today can help deal with that stress?

Eve: Well, everything they’re experiencing right now is historically unprecedented in the history of adolescence—in the history of society! And that’s really hard. Have you ever read anything by Toni Morrison?

Aria: No.

Eve: That’s like mandatory Black girl homework. Her most famous and well-regarded novel is Beloved, and there’s this scene where one of the characters is giving a sermon in the middle of the woods and she tells all the people who are gathered around her, many of whom are formerly enslaved people, you have to love your flesh, you have to love your neck, your eyes, your skin. Because, she says, yonder, they do not love it. Yonder they flay it—meaning it literally in that sense. Therefore it becomes more imperative than ever that you love yourself, that you actually work as hard to love you as you work hard at all these other things that you’re so good at.

I remember I was once at a decision point where I felt a lot of pressure. I was about to finish graduate school and I had ended a relationship that was really abusive. I was trying to put myself back together. And I saw this picture of myself where I’m probably 2 days old and I’m being held by my mom and my dad and my grandma. In this picture, I have accomplished nothing. I looked at the picture and their face and thought, “Wow, at this moment I was already the most important person in the world to these three people without having done anything. They already just love me. So I must be that dope.” What does it feel like to treat yourself like that?

Charles: I think one of the things that’s so hard is that there are all these things that are supposed to be part of being a teenager that have been served to us by movies, TV shows, and now social media. As a teacher, did you see kids go through a process of learning to separate who they were from who they thought they were supposed to be?

Eve: Yeah, that’s probably something that resonates more for me as a person than as an educator. That’s something that I struggle with myself—I think this is something that women especially struggle with our entire lives. It’s not just bound to adolescence. Sometimes I’ve found myself in a position where an opportunity arises and I’m like, “Wow, this is a dream, right? This is a dream job.” But then I’ve had to realize that doesn’t mean it’s my dream. None of us really have time to waste doing things that don’t bring us joy. There are a lot of times where you have to do things you don’t like, but at the very least, we shouldn’t be doing them because that’s what other people expect of us.

Charles: Yeah. I think the easiest advice is to say, “Look, you should just be yourself.” But it’s hard to be yourself. It’s hard to even know who yourself is sometimes. 

Eve: For sure. One question for Aria is who are some of the people that represent success for you?

Aria: I mean, there are so many different people. My sister, who is nine years older than me, is such an inspiration to me. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she’s amazing. She’s so well-spoken and intelligent. I see so much of myself in so many different people.

Eve: The reason I ask that question is because these people can demonstrate something about the way paths work. I would be willing to bet that your sister’s path had a lot of surprising twists and turns. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, went from being a bartender to a member of Congress. I think that the reason being a senior in high school feels really scary is because when you look at people that you admire, you see Point Z and Point A, but everything that happened in between can be really obscure, right? I often use the analogy of trying to cross a river. Let’s say you’re standing at the bank of a river and waters are rushing by really quickly. There are all these rocks in the river and you can see the other side, but you don’t know how to get across. The way I live my life is I try to make the best decision to get to the next rock. I think, “OK, I can make it to that rock. I don’t know what I’m going to do after I get to that rock, but I’m going to get to that rock and then we’ll figure it out.” And then I just jump. Once you get to that rock, you’ll see all these other rocks that you couldn’t see from the bank.

The way I became a teacher is that I took a leave of absence from college in my fourth year. At that time, my plan was to go to the Peace Corps after I graduated. But I went abroad to Paris, and by my second week in Paris, I knew I was not in a place to live for two years in another country by myself. I burst into tears when I realized that I didn’t want to be in the Peace Corps. I wasn’t crying because I was sad about missing out on this opportunity. I was crying because it sucks to not have a plan. What I did in that moment was think, “Why am I crying and what are the things I’m actually going to miss about this opportunity?” That was when I realized that what I had been looking forward to was teaching. It’s the greatest decision I ever made to become a Chicago Public School teacher. But I wouldn’t have made that decision if I hadn’t been able to accept that the plan I had before me was not the right plan for me.

Charles: When it comes to college applications, I know a lot of teenagers feel that they have to have everything already figured out. How do you plan for the future when it comes to college?

Eve: I’m a college professor and I have great students who are incredible people. It’s very rare that any of them knew coming in exactly what was going to happen on the other side. If you did, there’d be no point in going to college at all. I remember when I was thinking about going to college, I was like, “Maybe I’ll major in English or history or political science or biology. Also, I like math!” Aria, you seem to have so many things that you love, so when you’re choosing a college, you are really going to need a space that’s going to give you an opportunity to explore all those things and not put you under pressure to make a decision right away. Some colleges make you choose your major in the first or second week, but there are others that require you to take lots of different classes before you make a decision. So the real question is, what is the environment that you need to be able to explore those things in a way that feels nurturing and celebratory? And who are the people you have around you that are your North Star people?

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that life is unpredictable. I have friends who have given birth in the hospital by themselves. I have friends who planned their whole wedding for a year, only to find out that it’s not happening. I have friends who graduated from school and worked for years on a dissertation and dreamed of what that day was going to look like, only to have it be happening over Zoom. That’s kind of life. So the question is, how do we create systems and support for ourselves so that there are always people to check in with us. We do our best to get to that next rock, which eventually will lead you to the other side, but if not, you have good people to come get a raft and bail you out.

Charles: I think one of the risks of coming on a show like this when you’re successful is that we can say to folks, “Look, the road to success has all these zigs and zags, but it all works out in the end. And I can tell you that because it’s worked out for me.”

Eve: Yeah, in social science, we call that survivorship bias.

Charles: Exactly. But for folks who are still on the road, what do you do in that moment when you feel lost?

Eve: So when I feel down, the three things I usually do are No. 1, give yourself space to feel bad. Cry, be mad, yell at a pillow. The second thing I do is I tell myself, “You’ve done this before.” That’s part of why I’m a runner. Something I love about running is that you always have your past success to fall back on. You ran a mile before and you can probably run a mile again. The third thing for me is that I ask for help. Sometimes that help is on material things like, “Hey, how do I solve this problem?” But I also reach out for emotional help and support a lot. As James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Whatever our struggle is, there are always other people who also need care and uplifting.

I am going to get unapologetically corny and emotional. Aria, by very virtue of being a Black woman in this country, your life and everything you’ve already done so far is so wildly improbable. You carry in you the love and the sacrifice of infinite people, infinite other women and humans whose names you will never know, whose losses you will never even be able to fully comprehend. And that is just really powerful. When we say something like “you are enough,” that’s what that really means to me—your being here is already so miraculous. It doesn’t mean you cut corners. It doesn’t mean you get to be lazy. But I know you’re not going to do any of those things anyway. When all else fails, remember that you are a magical star child human being who by all odds was never meant to be born. And yet, here you are.

Aria: Eve, that’s everything I needed to hear today.

To hear more essential tips for managing anxiety and college stress from Eve, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.