Helping your teen succeed in high school

Parents play a key role in helping children thrive in their new environment

Summer seems shorter every year, and before we know it, we are talking about the upcoming school year. I will have two in high school this year, and for the first time in more than two years, and (fingers crossed) all signs are pointing to a “normal” start. The transition to high school is a big one. There is a heavier academic workload, the challenge of making new friends, and increased social pressures. For some, this change is exciting, while others may be a little nervous or anxious. It is normal to have a mix of all these emotions. No matter where your child falls, parents play a key role in the helping our kids make this transition successfully. 


It is important to set expectations early with your children. There can be a lot of distractions, so remind them their primary focus is getting the best education. In high school, classes are faster paced and even in ninth grade, grades are part of their permanent record. Talk to them about how they are going to handle the challenges. Make sure they have a dedicated study space — ideally not their bed — and limit distractions during homework time. They will be balancing a new schedule both with classes and extracurriculars, so help them get organized with a calendar and a strategy for time management. 

Last, empower them to advocate for themselves. One of the biggest changes from middle school to high school is parents have less direct contact with teachers. If your children are starting to struggle, encourage them to meet with their teacher or reach out to their counselor. Even as parents, navigating a new school schedule, administration, and communication can be tricky. Stay involved by understanding their classes, and attending back-to-school nights and PTA meetings, so you know what’s going on and whom to contact if you have a question. 


Last year in middle school they were the oldest, and now they are starting all over as the youngest. In those first few weeks they will be navigating getting around without feeling or looking completely clueless and trying to figure out who to sit with at lunch or what to do after school. They will be meeting new friends and trying to figure out where they fit in. This can a stressful time. Encourage them to get involved in extracurricular activities like teams or clubs, where they can meet people with shared interests. Remind them to be patient and give it time — it may take a few months to feel connected. For parents, chances are you knew all their friends and their parents in middle school, so in a sense you are starting over as well. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other parents your child is spending time with. In my experience, parents don’t always do it themselves, but they always appreciate a text or a phone call as an introduction or check in. 


A lot is asked of teens these days, and they are under increasing pressure between academics, extracurriculars, and social dynamics. We can help them balance all this by making sure they are getting enough sleep, eating properly, and getting daily exercise. We also want to help them recognize and manage when they are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or completely stressed out. As parents, we may feel the urge to swoop in and save them or solve the problem, but our job really is to give them the tools to do these things on their own. This can be hard, especially when they are struggling, but we can do a lot for them by simply showing empathy and interest. It is also important to recognize their need for alone time, which is not a bad thing — we all need it, but there are some red flags to watch out for. If your child is becoming withdrawn, more tearful than usual, or changes sleep or eating patterns, then it is time to step in. 

During these years, teens seek more independence, and their activities and friends play a central role, but this isn’t the time for us as parents to check out. They will never admit it, and trust me it doesn’t always feel this way, but they need our presence now more than ever. Let them know we are there if they need us, always providing constant love and support. It can be harder to find time to connect, so try every day to talk to them — not just about classes and grades but friends and activities. They will try to push you away, but showing them that what is going on in their lives is important to you will make the high school transition and years easier for everyone. 

Liz Farrell is the mother of three children and the founder of TechTalks, a consulting group to help schools and families have productive conversations around social media and technology. Email: [email protected]

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