Teen moving from middle school to high schoolA child’s perceptions of starting middle or high school: New building, new friends, new teachers. The specter of harder work, more homework, and more frequent tests. A sense of greater responsibility (you hope), and of not being a little kid any more. Particularly for high school, the feeling that everything “counts” more. Even children who enjoy school need time to adjust to the transitions from elementary school to junior high, and from junior high to high school.

So besides setting up appointments for  physical exams, the dentist and eye doctor, and buying loads of supplies, don’t forget to get your child ready emotionally for these important transitions.

Remember, even though it’s your child who has to walk through these transitions, as a parent you’ll have your walk-through also. So, because this is going to be a transition for the whole family, here’s some information designed to help motivate all of you and instill confidence.

Juggling Act

What makes these transitions so difficult? The first and perhaps most important reason is that during adolescence the brain grows at intermittent rates, creating a rhythm of intellectual spurts and plateaus. For example, if your child never had trouble with math before, he may be stumped by algebra because the abstract skills haven’t kicked in yet. This can lead to frustration.

Second, doing well in school at this age may not be as important to a child as being popular. Many times the two are not highly correlated. And don’t forget that the opposite sex becomes very important. Many times being in middle school or high school is like watching your favorite soap opera—lots of drama, and drama distracts.

Many families are raising their adolescents in complicated circumstances. Divorces, blended families, grandparents’ poor health all mean less stability. Less stability often means more distraction and less focus on academic performance. Underneath all this is a degree of anxiety for almost every child during this school transition. This anxiety is heightened by a deep need to be accepted and fit in.

If a parent doesn’t focus on anything else, he would be wise to try to focus on helping his child deal with her fear of entering middle or high school and feeling self-confident. Confidence and a belief that you can succeed usually translate to doing well socially and academically.

Success Stories

How can you help your child to achieve confidence and a belief that she can succeed during this transition? Teachers agree parents should become a BAA. What does this stand for? Back-up (the child can always lean on you during rough times), Advocate (you and your child are working together for the same goal: her success), and Audience (sometimes those stories will get old, but listen anyway and always clap).

Here are additional pointers I’ve learned from children who successfully made the transition to a new school:

  1. Stay informed. Many parents think their children don’t listen or don’t care about what they think. This is untrue. When children were asked who the most important person was for them at the age of 12 to 17, the majority replied it was their parents. Parents need to know what’s going on in their children’s lives. Listen, listen, listen.
  2. Prepare your child for learning. Parents should set a curfew, and ensure their child gets enough sleep. Make sure they have the equipment they need to succeed (computers, paper, ink, and printer). Make a rule about cell phones off at an appropriate time at night. Be consistent with family rules.
  3. Maintain high expectations. Basically, we get what we ask for. If you didn’t make demands in elementary school, starting now will be a challenge. Talk with your child about his ability and what he can expect. If the parent models the importance of education, the child will too.
  4. Nurture your adolescent. Hug your adolescent, and tell him how important he is to you. All kids need to hear this. When they seem really stressed, take the time to listen and share stories of times you felt the same. Encourage them by reminding them of other times they faced difficulties and came through. This means a lot to teens.

Mary Jo Rapini is a psychotherapist and co-author of Start Talking: A Girl’s Guide for You & Your Mom (Bayou Publishing, 2008).