How to help your child make a smooth transition to high school

Have a child headed to high school soon? Making the transition can be hard, but it is possible to help them adjust and maintain a meaningful connection.

Teens can be hard to figure out. Throw in getting ready for high school and the emotional shift that often comes with it, and parenting takes on a whole new dimension.

During this transition period children often pull away from their parents, seeking independence and agency, while gravitating towards their social circles.

While it’s common to feel there is a divide the size of the Grand Canyon forming as your child prepares for secondary school, it’s still possible to remain connected, and even forge a stronger bond.

Why high school transition is a difficult time for teens

This time in your child’s life comes with many changes – both structural and biological.

They’re preparing to leave the familiarity of primary school behind, venturing to a new and often bigger school where almost nothing remains the same.

Meanwhile, their brains continue to develop.

Australian Institute of Family Studies program lead Dr Lisa Mundy says while the physical size of the brain in adolescence has almost reached that of an adult, this phase of change is the second most significant after infancy.

“There’s a huge amount of brain changes that are happening at a structural and organisational level,” Dr Mundy says.

“On top of this, they’re having to navigate social and emotional aspects of life too.”

Dr Mundy explains their world is turning upside down, and with that comes a common concern about friendship circles.

What teens worry about most during high school transition

Research shows the transition to high school can be a stressful time for children.

According to Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, a major national study following the development of 10,000 families across the country, the biggest concern for children during the transition to high school is their social network.

“Building new friendships was the common difficulty for this transition period (according to this study) – the fear of losing friends and making new ones,” Dr Mundy says.

“Helping children to manage those concerns is really important.”

She says parents can help alleviate a child’s concerns by staying connected.

Why staying connected with your teen matters

Elly Robinson, from the Parenting Research Centre, says maintaining a strong connection with your child as they transition to high school is incredibly important, and communication is key to achieving this.

“While friends may top the list of priorities for children, at this stage they still need their parents,” Elly says.

“Friends don’t replace parents, so (parents) still have that opportunity to be the loudest voice as children move through that transition.

“Continue to talk to your child about their day, how they’re going, and show interest.”

Dr Mundy recommends being open and approachable, explaining it’s a good way to let your child know they can come to you with any issues or concerns as they arise.

Likewise, Elly adds: “If your child comes to you and feels open to conversation, drop what you’re doing and take that opportunity to talk to them.”

How to get your teen to open up

Make space to catch up

Dr Mundy says parents can create opportunities within the home environment to encourage children to open up.

“Even if it’s one night a week where everyone has dinner at home and you all sit down and chat,” Dr Mundy suggests.

She explains it’s about creating a space where children can open up and debrief.

“It gets you into a space where you’re already talking about what’s going on,” Dr Mundy says, which makes opening up about the big stuff easier for them.

Go for a drive in the car

Elly says another way to encourage conversation, particularly around touchy subjects, is to take your child for a drive.

“When you drive somewhere, kids are a captive audience and they don’t feel they have to maintain eye contact with you,” she says.

This helps to lessen the pressure.

Ask open-ended questions

Both Elly and Dr Mundy say you’re less likely to be met with the dreaded one-word answer if you use open-ended questions, such as the following, to encourage conversation:

  • What are you most excited about in your high school years?
  • How do you define a good friend?
  • What are you doing when you feel most like yourself?

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Written by Sarah Vercoe.