The Leap from Middle to High School: Helping Your Child Thrive

Life! Just when kids -- and their parents -- have mastered middle school, the challenging hoops of high school present themselves. This transition marks a significant rite of passage, corresponding with the developmental leap into adolescence. Our children are technically not children anymore. They are stepping onto the threshold -- emotionally, physically and intellectually -- of young adulthood.

Independence at this time is crucial. And yet, it's like on-the-job-training. To a large extent, adolescents are expected to learn how to be responsibly independent through trial and error. Parents are asked to willingly remove themselves from the trapeze platform and, instead, stand at the edge of the net. It's a fine line that both parents and teens must walk, between too much independence too fast and not enough.

You can take comfort in the fact that you're not alone in this process. You also need to know that no one has the answers. This includes you and your teen. Each of you is a unique individual who must find the answers that work for you.

This period can be an exciting adventure in self-awareness and growth. Parents and teens are challenged to make an authentic connection with one another. If approached openly, parents and children can emerge from the other side of this transition with a relationship that is unlike any other. A bond that is rich and strong, the hallmark of which is genuine unconditional love and respect, can be the result. More parents and their young adult children than you might imagine can testify that this is possible.

High School Transition Challenges The National Parent and Teachers Association (PTA) identifies these major challenges for youth transitioning from middle to high school:

  • Conflicts between social and academic needs. Youth within this age group are likely to rank social activity and peer relationships as their first priority. However, the high school environment emphasizes academic involvement and achievement as priority one. Tip: Introduce your sons and daughters to the personal planner. "The Seven Characteristics of Highly Successful People" by Covey might be a good gift along with a Palm Pilot. Covey's planning theory includes social activities and interests as normal human needs. He offers suggestions for effective time management so that life can include both work and play.

  • Developmental disparity between freshmen and seniors. Ninth graders can be as young as 14, while some upperclassmen could be older than 18. Typically, the developmental disparity between these ages is extreme. A beginning freshman may not be prepared to socialize with older classmates. Tip: Set social ground rules that are applied across the board regardless of the ages of your teen's friends. Consistency from the start of high school will avoid age becoming an attractive source of rebellion and, instead, emphasize general rules about socializing. It's helpful to hold the attitude that rules are for you and you teen to workout together. While there's much experience and wisdom you can offer your teenager, it can be helpful to admit that even you don't know everything. One of the greatest dilemmas faced by parents is setting rules that may not work, but not wanting to change them out of concern for showing weakness. If you establish rules together, it is possible to create a trial period. "Let's see how this works and whether it meets both of our needs. We'll try it for two weeks and then discuss it."

  • Diminishing parent involvement. Teens say they don't want parents "bugging them". But, child psychologists suggest that teenagers want their parents involved; they just want them to be involved in a different way. Tip: A school principal describes this phenomenon: "Your teen may not mind if you act as a chaperone on a school trip, so long as you ride on a different bus. Be the parent who volunteers to drive the kids places. Make your kids feel comfortable having their friends over to watch movies or hang out. While you're sitting in the kitchen working on something, the friends might come in and chat with you. Learn about their culture."

  • New structural environment. According to the National PTA, "the overall structure of most high schools is a major change from middle school." Primary differences are having multiple teachers based on course subject, and moving from room to room based on a student's individual schedule. The PTA also references the issue of becoming familiar with negotiating within a much larger environment. "Children from smaller school districts may face a kind of culture shock in large, regional high schools. Larger class sizes, more students, a bigger campus, and teaching styles more focused on subject matter than individual students' needs all can be difficult for incoming freshmen." Tip: As early as possible, begin to prepare your children for the academic rigors of high school. Keep the lines of communication open and remember that, although your high school age children are becoming independent, they need support during the process that they can only get from their parent.

Adolescent Depression
Universal challenges of parenting have lead to widespread characterizations of teenagers that are often used in jest. Referring to teenagers as "moody' is one of those. Adolescence represents a major period of growth and change - physically, emotionally and intellectually. Sensitivities and self-consciousness become acute. Teenagers' feelings about themselves can run the gamut from Herculean grandiosity to down-in-the-dumps self-doubt and deprecation. Sometimes it seems like they can shift back and forth between these polarities several times a day.

But, in spite of what some people see as "moodiness", healthy teens typically maintain a fairly steady core of having good appetites, enjoying being with friends and involved in favorite activities, and a measure of duty - if not ambition - about meeting academic and parental expectations.

Some teens depart from what could be called normal moodiness and become clinically depressed. Although rare, adolescence is a time when serious mood disorders can emerge.

Depression among teenagers can be serious. Statistically, depression affects about 8% of the adolescent population. And, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts to end one's life. According to a recent Adolescent Health Update from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the office of the US Surgeon General reports that "suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, following closely behind accidents and homicide. It is estimated that 1 in 10 teens contemplate suicide, and nearly half a million teens in the United States make a suicide attempt each year."

The AAP lists these signs of depression and other mood disorders:

  • A depressed and/or irritable mood most of the day, nearly every day for more than 2 weeks.
  • A diminished interest in previously pleasurable activities.
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain.
  • Difficulty sleeping, or an increased amount of sleeping.
  • Increased restlessness or lethargy.
  • Fatigue and loss of energy.
  • Prolonged feelings of worthlessness and/or guilt.
  • Difficulty making decisions and an inability to concentrate.
  • Recurring thoughts about death, suicide and specific plans about ways to end one's life.

If a teenager displays any or all of these symptoms, they should be seen first by their pediatrician for an evaluation to rule out the possibility of other physiological causes. Your pediatrician may make a referral for a psychiatric evaluation, which may result in appropriate medications and psychotherapy being prescribed.

This material is intended to provide general educational information and to help users arrange more easily for health care services. This site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice and should not be used to make a diagnosis or to replace or overrule a qualified health care provider's judgment. Nor should users rely upon this information if they need emergency medical treatment. We strongly encourage users to consult with a qualified health care professional for answers to personal questions







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