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Making the Jump: Middle School to High School

Your awkward middle schooler is on her way to becoming a confident teen, ready for the adventure of high school. It marks the beginning of a whole new phase in your child's life, and a shift in your role as a parent. Over the next four years, you'll become as much a partner as a parent, says Dr. Jennifer Little, an Oregon-based educational psychologist, teacher and parenting consultant.

In the meantime, though, stay close by and offer your child a supportive hand. A smooth transition to high school is critical for later success, according to the National High School Center. A 2005 study by the organization found that 40 percent of 9th graders in four urban districts were not promoted to the 10th grade on time, and fewer than 20 percent of those students were able to recover and graduate.

"Parents who have good behavior management systems in the home will have less difficulty than parents who are inconsistent or laissez-faire in family management." –Dr. Jennifer Little, Oregon-based educational psychologist

One of the Crowd

Questions about how she'll fit in are probably at the top of your middle julieschooler's list of concerns. The cliques you remember from your own school days—jocks, geeks, goths, preps and cheerleader groups—are still alive and well, along with others less familiar.

Although you can't shield your teen from every awkward or embarrassing high school social experience, you can help her understand that true acceptance comes from finding the right friends—not necessarily the most popular ones.

"Parents should monitor friendships," Little says. "Children have friends that reflect how they feel about themselves. When friends become questionable, it may be time for parents to really become involved."

Teens are much more powerful than they may realize. Take, for example, the case of Dallas Jessup, a 14-year-old black belt martial artist who produced a movie on self-defense for girls, sparking the development of her international nonprofit group, Just Yell Fire. Jay Jessup, Dallas's father, says, "Dallas was simply too busy to get caught up in the social drama that most kids experience."

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Encourage your child to participate in community service, music, drama or other engaging and meaningful activities, says Dr. Abigail Norfleet James, an educational psychologist and teacher based in Locust Grove, Va. Not only will your teen care less about fitting in, but she'll also be likely to meet friends with similar interests and temperaments.

Family Relationships

Once teens enter high school, your influence over them diminishes as peer influences increase, says Little. Teens still want and need a close relationship with parents, however, and the trick is to thoughtfully set limits as you slowly offer them more freedom.

Work to improve your relationship. Listen to your kids and talk with them—a lot, says James. Just don't expect them to talk in a formal setting. Boys, in particular, are difficult to crack.

"Don't sit down with him and ask him what is bothering him," James says. "Get him to help you with a task instead—cleaning the garage, washing the car—and talk while you work."

Let your teen know you trust him and have an interest in his friends. If you've got the money and room, you could do that by stocking the fridge, turning the basement into a game room, and making your home the "hangout house," says James.

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Whatever you do, the experts say you must reiterate your family's values frequently while consistently enforcing rules.

"Parents who have good behavior management systems in the home will have less difficulty than parents who are inconsistent or laissez-faire in family management," Little says. "Children need to be held responsible and accountable, but that takes time to establish."

Top of the Class

Just as classes in high school are tougher, so is competition.

"Coursework gets measurably tougher, homework gets much longer, teachers don't spoon-feed kids," says author Carlton Kendrick, a psychotherapist based in Massachusetts.

A college-bound teen needs a solid academic foundation of math, English and writing, foreign language and science. Also, leave some room for classes that cater to your teen's special interests, says James.

"Help him see what he does well in, and don't hyper-focus on what is difficult or uninteresting," she says.

You can help your teen get organized early in the year. Little recommends setting a schedule for completion of homework and encouraging your teen to use a planner.

"Keep up with the specifics of her coursework and homework," Kendrick says, "and don't wait for her first term's grades to find out how she's doing academically. Make sure your teen knows you're there to help, and offer to get a tutor if necessary."

While grades are important, Kendrick says, they are not everything. An obsessive quest for the highest grade point average and college entry scores can overshadow other vital aspects of the high school experience, such as making friends, developing talents and honing leadership skills.

He suggests you refrain from berating your freshman if her first marks are lower than you expected. The first year of high school represents a steep learning curve, and many kids struggle initially.

"Assure her that her study and test-taking skills will improve," Kendrick says. "Encourage her to come to you if she begins to become confused or overwhelmed about any of her schoolwork."

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Survival Tips for Parents

If you and your teen are regularly talking, you'll have a good sense of how she is adjusting, and you can intervene quickly if necessary.

"Most teenagers have erratic, inconsistent behavior at least some of the time," says Little. "The key to dealing with teens," she says, "is to shift from a dictatorial management style to one that allows for listening and problem-solving."

A few symptoms that require immediate attention, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, are changes in sleep and eating habits, a loss of interest in activities, extreme anger or aggressiveness, social isolation and self-destructive behavior. Any discussion of suicide should be taken seriously.

All kids have the occasional bad day, but if you notice a negative change that lasts more than a few weeks, it's time to talk with your pediatrician. These symptoms might indicate depression, an eating disorder, or drug or alcohol abuse.

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