The Freedom Debate: Transitioning from Middle to High School

Transition from middle school to high school

The Freedom Debate: Transitioning from Middle to High School

With many of my clients transitioning from middle school to high school this past year, there has been a common theme with parents scrambling to put rules and guidelines in place. As a result, their teenagers are protesting: “I’m in high school! Why do I have MORE rules? That doesn’t make sense!”

It doesn’t make sense. And yet, it does. It is a true dialectic.

Parents are rightfully anxious that the increased workload of high school, heavier extra-curricular schedules, and more opportunities for social events (and inevitably, parties) will cause their teenager to burn out or engage in maladaptive behaviors like substance abuse.

The teenagers are confused. They are older, wiser, and feel they should get more freedom as they enter high school. They wonder, why now are they being treated more like children? Shouldn’t they get more freedom now that they are getting older?

As in a true dialectic, there is no absolute truth. Both arguments are valid.

However, I tend to side with the parents. Especially for teenagers with existing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders or substance abuse, the terrain of high school can be rocky, and change can prove difficult.

Below is how I explain the increased rules and behavioral contracts.

The Bowling Analogy

The bowling analogyNavigating the pressure of high school is a learned skill, much like bowling. When first learning bowling, the novice bowler will be given bumpers. Bumpers are temporary and eventually removable.

The freshman student should therefore be given bumpers, especially if that student has landed “gutter balls” before–such as any maladaptive behaviors or coping mechanisms.

Once the bowler learns proper form, skills and technique, the bumpers can be removed. The bowler is not expected to bowl strikes every single time but is expected to show improved skill over time.

Just as the novice bowler can prove a grasp of skills and upward trajectory leading to increased performance, the student can be given more freedom and these “bumpers” can be taken away and more privileges can be earned.

Rules are put in place as needed. They serve to help us learn and grow. Rules should also be explained to the teenager that they are not forever. This will give the teenager incentive to continue their therapeutic work and use positive behaviors and coping skills. The freedom and privilege then becomes the reward.

And…everybody wins!


Authored by: Jaime Gleicher