• Behavior
  • Education
  • Parenting

Stay in tune as high school brings more independence

Coach and player holding football

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. How to coax my child to open up?
2. How to detect stress?
3. How to head off trouble?

Just as you noticed changes in your child’s behavior during big jumps in school, be prepared for more when transitioning from middle to high school.

It may sound counterintuitive, but parents should use restraint to stand back, says Deborah Newell, program director of Positive Parenting Program, known as Triple P, at Community Partners of South Florida, which serves families and children.

“Parents are committed to their own ideas,” she says. “So if your child tells you about something, even something that’s bad for them, try to hear them in a positive manner.”

Your best skills? Watch your children, talk to them, act quickly when they change and support their independence. These skills should serve you well until graduation, Newell says.


It takes patience and persistence to pry information from a child, says Terri Mortensen, former Child and Family program manager at the Faulk Center for Counseling in Boca Raton. Ask your child specific questions on the ride home or while preparing meals.

“You might ask, ‘Who did you sit with at lunch? Or, did anything funny happen today?’ ” she says. You also can ask about your child’s favorite activities, such as anime or music, rather than just academics.

Don’t give up. If a particular subject doesn’t work, try another, Mortensen says. “Just being interested in them can open them up,” she says.

It’s hard not to judge your child, so you must hear them out when they feel like talking, even if you don’t like what you hear. “They will come to you if they don’t feel they’re going to be judged or punished,” Mortensen says.

Besides the transition points in school, changes at home can stress your child, such as moving, marital or financial problems, says Dr. Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, a former child psychologist in Boca Raton. 

Another cause that can affect behavior is problems with friends, she says.

“There are cliques, friendships and social relationships,” Mortensen says.

Ask your child what’s going on but also consult the teacher, parents of your child’s friends and the friends themselves, she says. It’s important to know your child’s friends and ensure their activities are supervised. They may be experimenting with drugs, sex and alcohol, or with self-harm, such as cutting.


The key for parents is to tune into your child. “If they seem withdrawn, sad or stressed out, if they used to be in sports but don’t want to do that anymore, there may be an issue with their peers,” Mortensen says.

This isn’t the time to check out, as many parents think they can do. Quite the contrary.

“If they’re involved in a sport or club, get involved,” Newell says. “When they find their niche, you can build off that. It’s easier to conquer something if you know somebody loves you.”

Teens are learning how to take care of themselves. “If they know how to communicate to others, manage their feelings, to be independent and solve problems, they’re going to be more successful out in the community,” Newell says.

When stressed, children are more likely to act differently — rather than talk about it, Siciliano-Hartt says. Attentive parents will notice changes in behavior, ask questions and take action.

Take every opportunity to listen to your child. Eat together and talk during breakfast, dinner and even snacks before after-school activities. “You might not be talking directly about issues you or they are worrying about, but if something is going on, you’ll know,” Newell says.

An important talk doesn’t necessarily need a lot of time.

“If your child needs you, give them two or three minutes now,” Newell says. “If you constantly tell them, ‘Later, not right now,’ that’s when they develop patterns of interrupting, or they start acting up to get your attention. I wish I had known that when I was raising kids.”


Also take every opportunity to communicate with the teacher before any problems arise. If your child uses an agenda, check it for homework assignments and notes from the teacher, she says.

 “The minute something starts going wrong, the teacher will focus on that, and it can be downhill for the child,” she says.

Don’t wait for a crisis like that. Text or email the teacher to ask what your child is doing well and build on that, Newell says.

“Parenting is 24-7. It’s exhausting,” she says. “You have to take care of yourself too. You have to build your stamina.”

For children who recently immigrated, going to school here is a transition itself, says Sara Selznick, former senior director of programming at the Achievement Centers for Children and Families in Delray Beach.

People who grew up in different cultures don’t always feel comfortable with seeking help from outside the family, Newell says. “It can be a stigma, so we concentrate on whatever is working. We are geared at making very small changes that make a huge difference, like talking about the positive things the child is doing.”

Language barriers also can make it hard for parents to communicate with teachers. Enith Similus, for example, took English lessons at night so she could monitor the work of her two daughters at Village Academy in Delray Beach.

The Palm Beach County School District offers English classes at more than 30 locations throughout the year. For registered students, there is additional help with career counseling, family literacy and students with disabilities. Call 561-649-6010.


• Sara Selznick, former senior director of programming, Achievement Centers for Children and Families
• Terri Mortensen, former Child and Family program manager, Faulk Center for Counseling
• Deborah Newell, Triple P program director, Community Partners of South Florida
• Dr. Sarah Siciliano-Hartt, child psychologist in Boca Raton

You May Also Like

    • Behavior
    • Parenting
    • Safety

    Ages 14-18: Keep communicating during this life-changing stage

    At this age, older teens' sense of responsibility increases, and intimate and romantic relationships develop. Read on for more insight about key developmental milestones from our e …

    Read More
    • Behavior
    • Health
    • Parenting

    Nurture close relationship with teen to prevent substance abuse

    During the teen years, it’s only natural to worry about the influence drugs and alcohol could have on your child. If you suspect your teen has a problem, read on for advice from ou …

    Read More

Related resources

    • Behavior
    • Education
    • Health

    School District of Palm Beach County

    School Counseling — fosters academic achievement, college and career readiness, and social/emotional development

    561-434-8233 Website
    • Behavior
    • Parenting
    • Safety

    211 Palm Beach Treasure Coast

    Teen hotline, including online chat from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Or, texting available 24 hours a day by texting your ZIP code to 898211.

    2-1-1 Website
    • Education
    • Safety

    Achievement Centers for Children & Families

    Child care, afterschool and family strengthening programs in Delray Beach

    561-276-0520 Website
    • Behavior
    • Health
    • Other

    Urban League of Palm Beach County

    Teen Outreach Program (TOP), a free development program to build self-esteem, confidence and goal-setting among middle and high school students

    561-833-1461, ext. 3039 Website