by Jane Parent
Every fall, thousands of students make a significant rite of passage: they transition to high school from middle school or junior high. Many children feel a lot of anxiety around the first day of high school—the fear of being invisible, the worry of navigating unfamiliar surroundings, and the stress of higher academic expectations.
But above all else, social anxiety is likely their top concern: Who will I eat lunch with? What if I don’t know anyone in my classes? Here’s how parents can help their anxious high school students with this transition.
Making the Difficult Transition to High School a Bit Easier
1) Assure your teen that you have confidence in them
First, understand that the transition to high school is a major transition, says Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., author of numerous parenting books and a psychologist in Austin, Texas. “It can be daunting—physically, intellectually, emotionally—to be at the bottom of the rung again after being at the top of the heap in eighth grade.” So honor the struggle and acknowledge their fears, says Pickhardt. “Tell your son or daughter, ‘You have done this before. You have successfully coped with change before, and you have these transitional skills.’”
For some teens, a visual progression helps them keep things in perspective. Keep a sheet of paper at home. Talk with your teen at dinner. Give a grade or number score to each day. Chart their progress day by day. Seeing progress from the beginning to the end of each passing week can be concrete, visual data. “This chart can serve as empirical proof to your teen that yes, you are gaining in knowledge and confidence. You are adjusting to your new situation.”
2) Make positive predictions and give strategies.
If you have worries or concerns about your student starting high school, don’t ever communicate them to your child. “Your child will receive that as a vote of ‘no confidence’ in them,” warns Pickhardt. Instead, help predict challenges, talk about the challenges in a positive way, and assure your teen that these are concerns or fears that every other student also shares. Help your teen strategize and plan for those situations that they fear. If it’s being alone at lunch time, show him how to plan in advance to take care of himself so he can minimize this.
Ask your teen, “Can you pre-arrange with a friend to meet before lunch? You can plan and be proactive and care for yourself.” Planning ahead will empower her in this new setting, help her learn self-care, and make sure she gets what she needs to alleviate her anxieties.
3) Expect changes in friends.
The transition to high school means making new friends. Some kids—especially introverts who don’t make friends as easily—may feel abandoned or betrayed if their middle school best friend makes new friends. “This is not rejection,” notes Pickhardt, “but a normal fact of high school, where there are more people in a larger, more diverse environment. Many kids discover commonalities they weren’t looking for before in their middle school friends.” Encourage your child to inventory their interests and take advantage of new clubs or opportunities to meet other kids who also share those interests. “Find a belonging place, a way to meet new people based around a common interest, where you have ready-made conversation because you are interested in the same things. This is the best way for introverts to make new friends.”
4) Encourage non-school relationships.
Help your teen find other friend groups so his entire self-worth isn’t dependent on high school relationships. Encourage and facilitate neighborhood friends, religiously-affiliated groups, club sports, or family to serve as “multiple pillars of self-esteem and friendship” and to lessen the pressure on what happens at school.
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.