Every year, beginning around April or May, many of my young clients express worries and fears about starting high school in the following year. This feeling can be described as a general worry, but can escalate to crippling fear and panic.
There are many reasons why this fear and worry is understandable. It involves transitioning from the oldest in elementary school to the youngest in a larger, more intimidating school environment. Socially, high school amalgamates several elementary and middle school classes into one gigantic grade 9 class, filled with unfamiliar people. Some of my clients also worry about the perceived increase in difficulty level of school work and expectations. And even though grade 9 is the beginning of high school, it sometimes symbolizes that need to confirm long-term goals, which can include university or college programs and future careers.
On a more personal level, I empathize with my young clients because the frame of reference that they have regarding high school is a lot more darker and surreal than what I was exposed to when I was transitioning. I was bombarded by the bright colours and cheerful casts of shows like “Saved by the Bell”, “Boy Meets World”, “Full House”, and “Beverly Hills, 90210”. Now, high school series show more mature themes, such as “Pretty Little Liars”, “Riverdale” and “13 Reasons Why”. It is no wonder that some of our young ones are more nervous about this major life change!
When supporting youth through this time, I found the following things helpful and they may be helpful for you when talking to your teen:
- Normalize how they are feeling. “I am sure that a large percentage of soon-to-be grade 9 students are experiencing similar fears and worries”. Remind your teen that uncertainty and unfamiliar situations are always worrisome until they become more predictable and familiar. This will take some time. It is also okay to remind your teen that there are some experiences in life that cannot be avoided and this may be one of them. Challenging our fears can teach us about our resiliency and our ability to adapt to new and different surroundings.
- Focus on balanced thinking. “In addition to the things that worry you about high school, what are some of the things that you are excited about?” This could include meeting new people, joining clubs and extra-curricular activities, having their own locker, etc.
- Process specific worries. “What is the worst case scenario that you are worried about? Let’s find some strategies that may be helpful if this happens. What is the likelihood that this will happen anyways?”
- Connect your youth with appropriate supports. Some schools are now hosting “orientation” weeks that allow grade 9 students to acclimate to their new surroundings and get used to the new routines and structures. Participating in these programs may help in familiarizing themselves with their high school.
- Talk about it. Even when your child says, “I don’t want to talk about it. It makes me nervous”, remind him or her that the more he or she talks about it, the less scary the topic may become. Obviously, you don’t want to force your child to talk about it, but engaging in small dialogues about things that are exciting about high school may make it less daunting.
- Remind ourselves that of the social pressures that we may not understand, especially if we went to high school without social media, cell phones, the internet, and super-sized high schools. High school is definitely a different experience now than when I was a teenager a very, VERY, long time ago, and I am okay with admitting that I may not fully understand the new pressures that our youth today have to face. But I am also confident that with many of our youth, the passage of time and the support from others can make a positive difference when making this transition.
Here are some other helpful articles that may be of some use:
“Starting High School” – http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/starting-high-school.html
Helping Your Teen Adjust – http://www.drpaul.com/adolescent/highschool.php