Yet the transition to high school is just as dramatic and anxiety provoking as when kids enter school for the first time. Their bodies are bigger, but they may be just as anxious and uncertain.
For one thing, they are often going from being the oldest members of a school community to being the youngest. They don’t know their way around the building. They don’t know the rules and expectations of the teachers or understand the social hierarchy that has already been established by their peers. The amount of homework is likely to increase and the standards for making top grades may be higher. Their self-esteem is fragile while they struggle with their idea of what it takes to be both successful and cool.
Their bodies are changing. Hormonal shifts influence their moods and ability to cope. Acne appears. Some kids grow a shoe size a year. Even as their bodies take on adult characteristics, their minds have a long way to go. The frontal lobe, the part of the brain that helps us plan, prioritize, be organized, foresee consequences and manage change, won’t be fully developed until their early 20s. And let’s not forget that social media makes privacy illusive.
An additional stress is what is in the news every day: The possibility of a school shootings, racial violence, sexual harassment, abuse, and bullying are in the back of the mind of any kid who is paying attention.
Some kids seem to take the demands of high school in their stride. But even the most secure kids often find the transition to high school anxiety-provoking. Kids with academic and/or social challenges find it daunting.
What can a parent do to ease the strain? Just as with the transition to kindergarten, parent involvement can help. You can take some preventive steps that will make it more likely that your teen will settle into school and be more successful both academically and socially.
- Arrange a tour: It may take your teen’s anxiety down a notch if she knows how to get around the building. See if you can arrange for your teen to walk around and get oriented to where key areas are located (see the office, the gym, the cafeteria, the wing where most first year classes are held, etc.).
- Encourage your teen to contact friends who are going to the same school. Confronting the chaos of the halls that first day or a lunchroom filled with 100 kids and not a friend in sight can be terrifying. The experience is less daunting if they have arranged to share it with a friend.
- Support their efforts to find a style: The kids know that first impressions matter. How they dress on the first day is a signal to peers about who they are and what they value. Be aware that styles that had one meaning when you were in school may have very different meaning now. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Hair color grows out. Jean styles change. None the less, if you have concerns, do your best to have a calm conversation about it. Sometimes teens are more receptive to making changes if they don’t feel they are in a fight with the adults about their choices.
- Partner with your kids about academic stress: It’s a fact. High school is difficult. Be proactive. Before school starts, talk about how to be helpful without taking over. Most schools now post homework assignments and progress reports as well as a calendar of events on a website. Talk with your teen about how to best use this tool so they stay on track. Stay friendly but clear that school matters.
- Have conversations about safety concerns: School violence, from bullying to shootings, is in the news and in your kids’ awareness. We can’t live in fear. We can do our best to put a safety net in place. Educate yourself and your teen about school policies about bullying and violence. Review the school’s safety plan. Kids who know what to do are generally less anxious and are more likely to take care of themselves.
- Establish a healthy sleep routine now: It will be less of a shock come September if you can get your teen to agree to get into the rhythm of the school day now. Set the alarm for when your teen will need to get up to get out the door with minimum stress. Establish a reasonable bed time. Many kids report getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night. They need 8 to 10 hours! Sleep deprivation results in irritability and problems in attention, concentration and memory. This is not a prescription for academic or social success.
- Establish screen rules for school nights: Your teen knows that screens are time suckers and that it’s hard to resist checking their phone. But knowing and setting limits on their own are two different things. Work together to set a family policy for school nights. For example: Homework comes before social time on devices. All screens (phones, TV, computer, etc.) go off so that there is time for at least 8 hours of shut-eye. Yes. It will be difficult for you and your teen to make rules that stick. It’s also likely that your teens will be more successful if they can learn to use devices responsibly.
- Resolve to keep your involvement in friendly balance: Your child is emerging into adulthood and needs to push for more independence. Their pride, their idea that they should be able to handle things on their own, and their worries about being a “snitch” may make teens reluctant to ask for your help. None the less, they do need adult support.
The time to talk about how to work through conflict or your concerns is when there isn’t an immediate crisis. Talk with your teen about how to work on problems together. Acknowledge that they need time and opportunity to figure things out for themselves and space to grow. But also recognize that as their parent you have the right and the responsibility to be reasonably protective and to have reasonable expectations.