As August rolls along, you and your child’s minds are likely turning to the school year ahead. Moving to a new school year brings with it a spectrum of emotions ranging from excitement to dread.
If your child is moving from Year 6 to Year 7, transitioning from primary to secondary school, those emotions are probably magnified. Some may be raring to go, moving on with good friends, have siblings in the new school already, and are taking the transition in their stride. But for others, this transition can be daunting. Perhaps they don’t know anyone in the new school, or are moving on with old adversaries. Or perhaps they are just simply scared. Even for children who are relaxed about the move, leaving the safety and security of a well-known primary school and moving to a new, large secondary school where, rather than being top cat they are relegated to being a “little one” again is going to be one of the major transitions in their lives so far. Added into this mix, as your son or daughter approaches adolescence, the cocktail of hormones beginning to circulate can create further internal turmoil. As parents, how can you best support your child at this crucial time?
You have a big role to play here and there is a lot that you can do now. Whilst it may sound obvious, I can’t overemphasise the importance of making sure, on a very practical level that your child is prepared for their new school; they have their uniform sorted out, their bus pass has been applied for and their lunch card topped up. Over the summer you could practice their new journey to school with them if they’ll be using public transport. Not only does all this planning take many worries away from your child, it also shows them, in a very practical way, that they are not alone, that you are with them, thinking about them.
If your son or daughter doesn’t know anyone at their new school could you try and make contact with one or two soon-to-be classmates, so that there are a few familiar faces on the first day? This may also help you get to know other parents. Secondary school tends to offer far fewer opportunities to meet other parents than primary school, so, for you as a parent, this can be helpful too.
If you and your partner (or for single parents, you alone) work full time, are you able to rejig work hours so that your child can be greeted by one of their parents after school for the first few days rather than by an au pair or child minder? This will give him or her the opportunity to talk about their day, to share the excitements and the worries that they may have. And again, by changing your schedule and putting yourself out for your son or daughter you are acknowledging the huge change that they are going through, once more demonstrating that he or she is not alone.
As the new school term approaches and then begins, create opportunities to be with your child; maybe walking the dog or finding a need to go to Sainsbury’s with him or her alone. Talk to them, but perhaps more importantly listen to them, create space and let them talk. And by this I mean really talk rather than answering questions. Most children, on being asked how you are feeling will typically answer “fine”. But being given time and space to talk about whatever is on their mind will encourage more open, honest communication. If they are scared or things are not going well, acknowledge that feeling. You could say something like “it sounds like you’re scared about starting your new school” or “it sounds like you’re finding it quite hard at the moment”.
As a parent you may well have invested considerable time and energy into finding the right school for your child and more than anything want them to be settled so that they can make friends and be ready for the academic challenges ahead. When it doesn’t seem to be going smoothly, being with them through their stress and fear can be painful and frightening for you as an adult too. The temptation is often to say placating words like “don’t worry”, “don’t be silly”, “it will be OK.” The good news is that it probably will be OK. It normally is. But for your child it might not feel like that. Knowing that you have heard how they are feeling can be extremely reassuring for a young person who may feel scared and isolated. And demonstrating that you can really hear what your child is telling you could hold open doors to future honest communication.
As your son or daughter moves to secondary school social media will become increasingly important to them. The social pressure of Facebook, Snap Chat and the like put additional pressure on your child that we didn’t face in our youth. Recent research found a link between teenage depression and use of social media. At times a bit of reality checking is helpful; remind your child that no one really has 300 friends, that people don’t post pictures of being alone in their room, only when they’re having fun, and no one has fun all of the time. And remember that you, as the parent, are in charge, you can make the rules. Doing so now is going to be easier than when they are older. It may be worth considering a “no phones at dinner” rule or some other limitation. A break from the pressure of social media may be a relief for your child. At the same time, having rules, imposing firm boundaries will be reassuring for your son or daughter, and could be just what he or she needs at a time in their life when the rest of their world feels less secure.
If your child really seems to be struggling to fit into the new school, consider talking to their identified pastoral support, maybe year head or form teacher to hear an objective view of what is going on. Is your child really alone all lunch-time, or do they only remember the few minutes they are alone, not the rest of the hour when they were with others? If things are not going well, is there any support the school can offer? Some schools have buddy or mentoring schemes to help pupils settle.
As parents it is easy to feel guilty, worrying about getting it wrong, striving to be the perfect parent. But that’s not possible; there is no such thing. All you as a parent can do is try your best and be available for your child. But that is OK. To paraphrase psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, a child just needs a parent who is ‘good enough’.
This article is written by: Diana Samuels, MA, UKCP.
Diana is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist working at The Natural Gateway Clinic