It Ain’t Easy Being (a) Teen: 7 Tips for a Smooth Transition into High School


I still remember the morning my friend Laura taught me the secret to leaving our weekly toddler playgroup without tears and meltdowns – either by my son or me – when I felt incapable of the seamless transitions Laura and her sweet daughter Lily always seemed to make. With six months more of parenting under her belt, Laura frequently answered all my burning parenting questions, like, “Why is this tiny human so irrational?” On this particular day, Laura told me about the 15-minute warning. Pointing out what should have been obvious, she said, “We know when we need to leave, but our kids don’t, so when we suddenly say ‘Let’s go,’ the abrupt change upsets them.”

Well, duh. From that moment on, I used the technique of giving my kids a 15-minute warning before making any transition, with reminders at the 5- and 1-minute marks so there were no surprises.

Now, with Laura’s daughter starting her sophomore year of high school and my son making his transition from middle to high school, her advice came flooding back to me. I decided once again to lean on my vast and beautiful village of experienced mamas, daddies, and dear friends who don’t have their own kids, but who work with kids as teachers, college admissions reps, or university professors, for tips on how to help our sons and daughters make a smooth transition into high school.

With deepest gratitude to everyone who talked with me for this post, allow me to share what I learned:

1. Get Your Child Involved

Whether you encourage them to pursue an existing interest or take up something new, get your child involved in a group like band, choir, drama club, robotics, chess club, sports, or another activity that helps them build a circle of like-minded peers. They can build relationships with kids who have a similar interest and kids outside their grade. It gives them both a stronger sense of purpose and helps them feel like they belong.

2. Help Them Make a Good First Impression

Teachers notice which kids start the year with a positive attitude and exert effort right off the bat. Even something as benign as where your child sits in class makes an impression. Encourage your son or daughter to sit near the front or center of the classroom where they can easily pay attention. Remind them to show up prepared for class with completed homework, necessary supplies, and a readiness to join in class discussions.

3. Step Back/Lean In

Remember when you were in high school? If you got a bad grade, your parents expected you to own that nonsense. Now, it’s time for you to do the same. It’s time for your child to take ownership of their academic responsibilities – from keeping up with due dates and putting forth their best effort to communicating with teachers if they have questions, need extensions, or have issues with an assignment. You do not need to get involved, worried Mama. Nor do you need to step in if they are having a conflict with a friend or peer. You won’t be there later in life to intervene when they have a nasty work colleague or mean boss.

High school provides the perfect time to start letting your child learn how to engage with a variety of personalities and resolve conflict while they have the safety net of your love and guidance. Let them have this opportunity to learn. On the flip side, however, now is the time to lean closer into your teen, teaching them valuable life skills that will help them succeed in high school and beyond. From study skills to how to do their own laundry and cook a meal or set and keep a budget, there are lots of ways for you to stay engaged with your child during this time.

4. Set Realistic Academic Expectations

Talk to your child about her strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Naturally, we all want our children to push themselves and work hard. It’s unfair, however, to expect every child to excel in all subjects. It’s equally unfair to expect every child to take Advanced or AP classes, especially in subjects that aren’t their forté. Trust your child, former teachers, and the school counselor to help your child build a class schedule that affords her the opportunity to shine. This is also a good time to explore academic testing if your child is struggling in a specific area and, if needed, to request accommodations to help your child succeed. You may also want to take this time to explore Myers-Briggs testing to help your child discover potential career options in order to better focus class selections as she advances. 

5. Help Your Child Manage His Stress

If you don’t already know how to manage stress – and many of us don’t – now is the time to learn and set a positive example for your teenager. Aside from midlife, there might not be a time of life filled with greater change or stress. From academic and social pressures to the lack of downtime due to the constant pace of studying and extracurricular activities, your child faces the risk of becoming overwhelmed, worn out, and making unsafe choices in order to shake off the stress. So, instead of reaching for your second Maker’s, maybe invite your child to go for a run, hit up a yoga class, or engage in the practices of meditation or mindful breathing. 

6. Remind Your Child to Have Fun

Let’s make no bones about it: Adulting is hard. And for all our worries about getting our kiddos into college and helping them figure this thing out so they can win at Life, now is the time for them to be having fun, to explore their interests, and all the possibilities that lie ahead of them, before Life gets in the way with careers, bills, spouses, and kids to blind them to their dreams. Learning from your mistakes is a key part of learning to be a responsible adult and what better time to make mistakes than when you still have the safety net of your parents’ presence to catch you? So, encourage your child to explore his interest in photography or cooking by choosing a related elective. Support them when they want to try out for the play. Let them enjoy staying up all night laughing with their friends at stupid movies or give them the extra allowance so they can take a date to a concert. These experiences may not get them into an Ivy League school, but they will help your child discover who they are, possibly even set them on the path to a brilliant career, and definitely move them toward a more joyful life. 

7. Keep Showing Up, Keep Showing Interest

Just when your kids might act like they don’t need or want you around is exactly the time when you need to keep showing up and being present. But don’t just be the authority figure barking orders and expressing your pride or disappointment. No, this is the time to show up as just another flawed human being who shows a genuine interest in the person your son or daughter really is. Obviously, you should have been doing this all along – from the days where they could go on endlessly about Thomas the Tank Engine or My Little Pony right up until now. But don’t stop…keep engaging them on their interests. You might be cringing at the lyrics to their favorite song even as you bust out your finest dance moves in the kitchen while cooking dinner and laughing together, but these are the moments when their guard is down and they’ll be more willing to share what’s on their mind…where you can peek inside their hearts. Keep showing up and you’ll build a level of trust that keeps them coming back to you, even as they grow, learn, and prepare to soar on their own.

Good luck, Mamas and Daddies. I’ll be doing my best to put these tips to work as I help my son transition to his new high school in just a few weeks. I hope you found something here that resonates as you work to help your sweet child with his or her move to high school. My heart and thoughts are with y’all as we prepare our young men and women for this next stage of their journey! Let me hear from you on what works or doesn’t and if you have another tip, please share it in the comments! 

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Dawn Downes
Hey, y’all! I’m Dawn – a native Tennessean who could not wait to escape the small town for the big city. After attending a women’s college in Atlanta, I took root there and stayed. One marriage, two homes, two kids, and 25 years later, here I am, back in Tennessee. My husband moved here in January of 2016 to start a new job while our two boys, Brendan (born 2003) and Beckett (born 2006), and I stayed behind to finish the school year and sell our house. We arrived in July 2016 and have been working to make a happy new home here since then. We love living on the North Shore and I am enjoying finding unexpected beauty and little joys throughout our new city. I am also mama to fur babies, Josie the Rhodesian Ridgeback/Lab mix, and Miller, a sweet orange and white tabby cat. I'm into art, movies, music, TV, pop culture, nerdy stuff like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and I know more than my share about the DC Universe, Pokemon, Minecraft, Battlefield, and all things LEGO thanks to having two boys.


  1. I love this Dawn! So perfectly written with so many great nuggets 😊. My son’s middle school counselor gave a great piece of advice to parents that I’d like to share . She said keep in mind that your rising 9thgraders are still children and will be children until the next grand transition. She said maybe the most important thing we can do is to protect that, let them be children. They can never get that back. They have the rest if their lives to study and work. I loved that and plan to try and make this my parenting philosophy this last leg. Thx again for your writing and sharing. Keep at it girl!

    • Laura, thank you for reading this! That’s such wonderful advice! Thank you for sharing! Good luck to you and G as he makes his move to high school!

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