In the interest of full disclosure, I need you to know that I’m writing this as both a Licensed Professional Counselor with years of experience working with children, adolescents, and transition aged youth experiencing every imaginable diagnosis, barrier, challenge, system involvement, and family circumstance.

I’m also writing this as a mom of three whose baby is starting high school this month. I don’t know which role I’ve learned more from, both have been immense and valuable in the lessons extruded – often with great discomfort. I know that from each perspective (personal and professional), I have experienced and witnessed the reality of what it means to be a parent – learning how to do it while doing it is hard, exhausting, terrifying, joyous, exhilarating, and often confusing. 

You and your rising high schooler can work together to create a back to school experience that is no more stressful than it needs to be. I won’t profess to know everything about preparing your kid for high school. I don’t know your kid. You do. 

Also – they know themselves pretty well even if it doesn’t always appear as such. Remember to include them in the process.  

  1. Communication is key. Don’t assume you know what they are experiencing, thinking, feeling, or stressing about. Ask them. With my first kid, I made a lot of assumptions about what they felt based on what I had gone through in school. I got busy re-parenting myself and didn’t realize it. When I did realize it, I regrouped and refocused, but I could have saved them and myself a lot of misunderstandings. 

Here are some questions you can ask to jumpstart your school conversations. They don’t have to happen perfectly. They don’t have to happen at a particular time. Your kid may not know how to answer them. Ask anyway. If these questions don’t feel right to you – create your own. 

Some questions you can ask to start the conversation:

What is something you are looking forward to in high school?

What is something that feels confusing to you about how things work?

What do you wish someone would have told you about starting middle school that might be useful in this situation?

What feels like a priority for the beginning of school?

How can I best support you?

What do you want me to know or understand right now?  

 What have I missed?

  1. Plan ahead. Have discussions with your kid about changes in schedules, school start times, bedtimes and wake-up times, chore changes or sibling responsibilities, after school activities, socializing during the week, school walk-throughs, accommodations (more on this later). My rising 9th grader is going from middle school which began at 9:30 am to high school that starts at 7:45. The bus comes at 7:15. This was miserable for both of the older siblings and while this kid is different we’ve had to discuss how this will impact them, how to alleviate the impact, and creating a plan of action to prepare for the beginning of school by going to bed earlier for the week or two leading up to day one.  

They might be high schoolers now, but a few things are true: 

  • Being in high school means there are still at least 4 years before they are “officially” adults
  • Teens are REALLY distracted these days, 
  • Change and/or anxiety can make anyone forgetful,
  • They still need you.

Bottom line, teens need a lot of reminding. A lot of explicit directions. Especially during times of transition. Maybe not all teens – but many do and it’s important for us as parents to understand and accept that this is still part of our role. We don’t have to do everything like we used to when they were younger, but making assumptions about what they know and understand about a changing situation sets you and them up for unnecessary conflict and anxiety. Even if they get annoyed with you over explaining – that’s ok. They can be annoyed, but they won’t be able to say that they didn’t know or weren’t provided an opportunity to discuss and understand the elements of the changing circumstances. 

  1. Understand your own needs. This is emotional. On the day of my baby’s high school orientation, I was completely unfazed, telling myself all day, “I’ve done this twice already!” Until I walked into the school and saw the “Class of 2027” banner hanging in the Cafeteria welcoming them. It took every bit of strength I possessed not to burst into tears right there in front of everyone. Normally, I’m fine with public weeping but this moment was about my kid not me so I needed to hold it together until we left. It’s perfectly fine to be emotional about these milestones. It’s just important for parents to understand our own needs so they don’t get mixed up with trying to support the new high schooler. Give yourself space to process, feel your feelings, validate them, and get support if needed from a partner, friends, support group, or a therapist so that you can show up for them having worked through your own stuff. Our kids are not responsible for our emotions. 
  1. You have the kid you have. They need what they need. Let’s be honest…we begin this parenting journey with expectations, a vision of all the ways that we will succeed and know exactly how to respond to every situation, and on some level we believe that if we are perfect, our kids, as a result, will fulfill EVERY idea we had of what being a parent would be. The reality is bumpier and less certain. No parent is perfect. No parent has ever parented the kid they are parenting. No two kids are exactly alike. Give yourself a break. 

Make sure your child knows that they can come to you (or another trusted adult) for help if they need it.  If they are struggling academically, socially, functionally, or otherwise and you aren’t sure what to do or who to ask, start with a school counselor or your child’s pediatrician and go from there. It can be difficult to admit that you aren’t sure what to do. It can be harder for your child to ask for help. The pressure to have it all together is high – they need to see and hear that it’s ok for them to not know things, to make mistakes, to ask for help, and to need support. They need to know that it’s ok for them to be who they are not who you envisioned they would be before you became their parent. 

The most important thing to remember when preparing yourself and your child for high school is that your relationship with them is the most important thing. Teens appreciate clarity, structure, and reasonable expectations (I promise…also see #4 above), AND they NEED independence, opportunities to make mistakes, without shame or ridicule for testing a hypothesis that turned out to be false. You are a touchstone at this point. The older they get the farther away they wander from the safety of you, but they still need to wander back regularly to ground, to process, to regulate so that they can head back out and keep making their way.     

Pulse Wellness Cooperative therapists use trauma responsive practices to work with teens and parents; individually and together in various ways, we support the often challenging phase of transitioning to adulthood. This includes skills for understanding emotions, self regulation and co-regulation, active listening, conflict management and other relationship skills, symptoms management of specific diagnoses, and referrals or recommendations for additional support if needed. 


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