The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kids heading to high school? Here’s when to take control and when to let go.


Parenting through transitions is tough, especially when you’re not sure how much to let go in that next stage. That may not be more true than when your child moves to high school.

As middle school and college admissions experts, our knowledge bookends some of your child’s most transformative years. We often see parental anxiety spike during their kids’ transitions from middle school to high school, usually because of a fear of the unknown, specifically the mystery of when and how they should be involved in their teen’s life decisions.

Based our experience working with tweens and teens, here’s our advice about when to steer your child’s course and when to sit back and go with the flow.

Academics in high school vs. middle school

In high school, your child will have more academic flexibility. They can select some courses based on interest, challenge themselves in areas of strength and pursue internships. These opportunities allow your child to experience pride in their own successes. That said, as one parent recently told us, it’s like high schools “cram an entire middle school year’s worth of work into one high school semester.” Your child will have to study more difficult concepts, complete a lot of homework, and may experience greater academic pressure. To succeed, they will have to exercise good study habits like they never have before. It’s hard to know when to take control and when to let natural consequences take over.

Want your child to get into college and have a good life? Here’s how.

How to navigate it

Before high school, your child should bolster areas of weakness. For example, if they struggled with eighth grade math, they should review important concepts so that they don’t fall behind and become discouraged. Connecting your child your child with additional resources such as private tutors or online courses are a great way to achieve this, removing battles with you and allowing you to become the more chill parent instead of the taskmaster. If you can’t afford those, look for creative options. High school students may be able to help for a small price. Or barter with another parent — you help their child with writing, they take a little time with yours on math.

Also, instead of enrolling in every honors- or AP-level course offered, students should challenge themselves only in areas of strength or interest. Allowing your child to decide this for themselves will allow them to be more invested in the work and more interested in it.

To learn about your child’s high school’s offerings, meet with their college counselor, then back off. Their counselor can map out a freshman year enrollment plan to set them up for success. You take control initially by connecting your child with the right resources. They will probably need some hand-holding in the beginning, but then you can transition the responsibility of follow-up meetings to your child.

If your child struggles early on, all is not lost. Whereas ninth grade grades do matter for college admissions, sophomore and junior-grade grades are more important. Colleges appreciate either consistently high grades throughout high school, or an upward trend.

If your child isn’t interested in attending college? Find out what your child is interested in and support their journey. You could explore vocational or trade programs. Working hard in school will help develop strong work habits for nonacademic success, too.

To get into college, Harvard advocates for kindness instead of overachieving

The activities

High school is a great time to pursue activities of interest. Not only will getting involved boost your child’s college admissions odds but they will feel more fulfilled. Exploring their interests more deeply can also influence their future career prospects.

On the flip side, your child may experience pressure to participate in certain activities simply because their peers are or because they think it will look good on college applications. Your child may stretch themselves too thin, not leaving enough time to pursue genuine interests.

How to navigate it

It’s important for your child to protect a good chunk of their time to actually be able to explore their interests.

Ask them what they want to try — and listen. Even after you brainstorm a few ideas, restrain from going all in. Instead, encourage one small step after another. Activities are a great place for you to drive the carpool and your child to drive decision-making.

When your child starts identifying stronger interests, go deeper, but deliberately. Ask your child why they’re enjoying certain activities most. Identifying a mentor who can help your child dig deeper will also be beneficial.

Ultimately, too many activities can lead to surface-level participation. By contrast, students who develop and pursue deeper interests experience greater personal growth, make more meaningful community impacts and solve bigger problems.

The social landscape

Many lifelong friendships begin during high school. Your child may meet individuals who share their joys throughout college, their first job, marriage and children.

However, your child may also face tremendous social pressure. There are high stakes to find a tribe, overcome peer pressure and bullying, and establish independence from family. Moreover, teenagers have a biological need to take risks, in both positive (e.g., auditioning for a play) and negative domains (e.g., early sexual activity), which are heavily influenced by their peers.

How to navigate it

While friendships develop organically, it’s important to encourage your child to pursue them actively. Kids who seem addicted to their phones are craving time with friends more than a technology fix. If your child asks to see friends outside of school, allow for this.

You should speak to your child about responding to peer pressure and bullying. Telling an adult when bullied is not a comprehensive strategy, so support your child to develop greater assertiveness and help them identify resources to turn to — counselors, friends, mentors.

A mentor will also improve social interactions with adults, which will set them up for success with internships, potential employment and adult independence. Family friends, coaches and teachers can be invaluable for learning life lessons — often the same lessons you’ve tried to share that may have fallen on deaf ears.

Although it may be difficult to give your child space, preparing for adult independence is incredibly important for teenagers. Sometimes, your child will make poor friend or activity decisions, but as long as their physical safety and mental health are protected, their errors build resilience. The more you try to orchestrate their social scene, the less successful they will be in the long run.

The emotional landscape

We’ve all heard stories of moody teenagers who constantly argue with their parents, sleep odd hours, act impulsively and break rules. But we often gloss over the positive aspects of raising a teenager.

First, your teenager is still the same child you’ve adored all of these years; they’re just on a journey to differentiate themselves. Many parents can enjoy the evolution of their relationship with their growing teenager because they can have intellectual conversations and develop a deeper connection with their teenager than during any other time. The key is to become a sounding board rather than a micromanager when your child is processing challenges.

How to navigate it

The best way to respond to your child’s growing independence is to encourage their self-exploration and positive risk-taking rather than create more rules and demands.

Remind your child that you’re available to them. Don’t assume your child knows to come to you when dealing with academic and social pressures and their changing body.

Keep in mind that your child sometimes just won’t come to you. Therefore, make sure your child knows other adults they can turn to. We’ve all had times when we didn’t feel comfortable approaching our parents — why should we expect differently from our children?

Regarding sleep patterns, teenagers’ bodies tend to release melatonin — a hormone involved in controlling our sleep-wake cycles — much later in the day than adults’, which contributes to high schoolers’ tendency to sleep later. When they wake up early for school, teenagers’ fatigue contributes to their irritability. Therefore, whenever your high schooler tries to catch up on sleep on weekends, let them.

Finding balance while moving forward

Figuring out the balance between when to get involved and when to back off is almost like teaching your teen to drive a car. At first, you’ll talk about how things work and what to expect. Then, you’ll let them take the wheel, but you’ll be right there — offering feedback as needed, but biting your lip. You’ll grab the wheel when you have to, but that should never your goal. And in time, with practice and guidance, your child will head down the road alone while you watch with fear, wonder, and — we hope — quite a bit of pride.

Michelle Icard is the author of “Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years.”

Shirag Shemmassian, Shemmassian Academic Consulting, is a college admissions expert.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We tweet @OnParenting.

More to read:

Barnard’s president on how to help raise STEM-confident girls

Top 10 skills middle school kids need to thrive and how parents can help