Words by Kylie Layton: Clinical Psychologist
Photo by @Gaellemarcel
And just like that your child is off to high school! The transition to high school marks a significant milestone in a child’s life; another step taken in their developmental journey. It is an exciting yet daunting time for both the child entering high-school and for their parents. This transition comes with many new things to learn and many new challenges to face. For even the most resilient and confident of children, adjusting to high school can be difficult. High school means increased responsibility, increased academic pressure and increased exposure to complex social situations.
Moving from grade six to seven can boost a child’s self-confidence or just as easily shake their sense of self. It can strengthen the relationship between the child and their parent or it can start a process of disconnection. With so many important moments occurring outside a parent’s awareness or control, at times it can feel like there is little a parent can do. However, parents are still very much needed; as a safe space to debrief, a sounding board, a teacher of social skills and resilience, and most importantly, as a reminder that the child is loved and valued in a world that can very easily feel overwhelming to a new Grade 7 student.
So how do parents remain connected to their children in a meaningful way amidst all the change and challenge that comes with puberty and the transition to high-school? It can help to have a loose plan of attack based on a few simple points that parents can to apply to the many challenging moments parenting a Grade 7 child can bring.
The first thing to remember is that your child will naturally feel some anxiety around this transition. It may be a little or it may be a lot, but for each child this is a transition into something new and unknown and the human body will naturally produce a degree of anxiety in these circumstances as a warning to tread carefully into a new situation. This experience of anxiety may be triggered by the need to make new friends, the challenge of mastering a new way of learning, or the increased pressure of a new level of academic difficulty. It is also likely that other emotions will come with this milestone including sadness at leaving their previous school and grief for the loss of connection with friends.
When a strong emotion, like anxiety, is experience by a child or adult, their brain becomes absorbed with dealing with that emotion. Emotions are like our body’s instincts, seeking to give us information about the situation we are encountering and when the brain is flooded with emotion it cannot easily access the logic centres of the brain.
A pre-teen who is undergoing puberty is also experiencing changes in the brain including the rapid development of the brain’s emotion centres. In contrast the part of the brain needed for problem solving, planning and effective decision-making; the pre-frontal cortex, is the last to fully develop and in fact isn’t fully developed until around 25 years of age! This means a typical Grade 7 child roughly has adult-sized emotions with a child’s-ability to deal with them effectively!
As a parent, understanding these developmental changes, and that your child will be experiencing a range of normal, understandable and intense emotions, is the first step in successfully navigating these changes. This information also highlights that we need to address the emotion first. We cannot access our logic centre when an emotion is flooding our brain and attempting to get a child to be reasonable or logical has the frustrating effect of retriggering the child’s distress! Instead, our emotional child is seeking validation and understanding for their experience; to be heard and acknowledged. When we validate our child’s emotion, we start to calm that emotion. However, if we aim to ‘fix’ our child’s problem; with solutions and advice, we are inadvertently making the emotion bigger or more complex. Validating an emotional child may take up time we feel like we don’t have, but it can often prevent hours of distress and arguments later. Once we calm our child we can then ask them if they would like any help or if they feel they can navigate this on their own.
It is also helpful to recognise that parents too might have some strong feelings about the transition to high school; based on their fears for their child, their expectations of this transition, and even their own high school experience. Creating an environment at home in which we are seeking to notice, name, and articulate our feelings can, not only allows parents to recognise and navigate strong feelings in a healthy manner but can model, for a child, how to put their experience into words. This in turn allows us to be more able to address and meet the need in front of us.
Having the expectation that our child will be more emotional over this transition to high-school also means giving the child permission to not be at their best emotionally or behaviourally. This doesn’t mean we become accepting of poor behaviours but this might mean that rather than a conversation or consequence focused on the poor behaviour we might first check in with what is going on for them; ‘It’s not like you to be so hurtful, is their something going on you would like to talk about?” Parents may also need to give themselves permission to not be at their best and need a bit of self-care and self-validation for the emotions and challenges they too are experiencing.
This leads us then to boundaries and the need to keep clear boundaries in place around behaviour, freedom, responsibility and, of course, social media. As your child transitions from Grade 6 to 7 they will be subconsciously seeking those boundaries in their new world. Boundaries allow children to feel safe and confident in their experience and this allows them to be more curious learners and explorers within the space available to them. Gently increasing your child’s sense of responsibility while also offering clear limits allows them to start to transition into the adult world at a pace that allows their confidence to grow.
Lastly, carve out some time to maintain a strong connection to your new high-schooler. High school students are still seeking a strong connection to their parents and, while this may be challenging at times, they will be grateful for time spent one on one with their parent doing an activity both enjoy or talking about their day. It can be hard to pick the right time to connect however. Tweens are less likely to spill their thoughts sitting face to face across the table but may be more inclined to share sitting side by side in a car, working alongside you in the kitchen, kicking a ball in the backyard or just before bedtime. These can all be times when a child is feeling less in the spotlight and more able to talk to you about some big issues.
Remember that it is big and important stuff to them! It’s the first time they have experienced these things, and these events make up their whole world. As adults we have the benefit of hindsight and know that our high school moments are not always as crucial as we thought they were, but our children are living these moments for the first time. We show them we hear them when we acknowledge how big this is for them.
The transition to high-school can bring many significant moments; epic highs and tragic lows but the transitioning child will still look to their parent for security, boundaries, connection and love. If parents can expect big emotions and big moments for their child and seek to meet them with validation and understanding (and direct some of that at themselves along the way) than this transition can be a successful one, and set up habits that can mean good things for the child, their parents and the connection between the two in years to come.