Starting high school, and even changing to a new school, can be super scary. Between being distanced from your old friends and teachers and the school that you’re familiar with and being thrown into a completely different set of rules and a whole new group of people, it can be a lot to process. We spoke to Dr Kathy Murray from Training and Education Services about why this can be such a difficult time for tweens, and what kinds of things parents can do to help.
“Will they like me?”, “will I fit in?” and “how should I do my hair?” are just some of the thoughts that tween girls have at the beginning of the school year. The first point to be made is that just about everyone has these thoughts – it’s normal!
The second thing you should know is that there are ways that you, as a parent, can help your tween and minimise their feelings of uncertainty, nervousness and maybe even fear about starting at a new school. But to support our girls, we need to understand what’s going on.
Developmentally, there are a lot of things going on in the body and the brain during the tween years.
Physically, there are a range of hormones that seem to take control of your body. Changes start to occur with proportion and shape, which can really add to feelings of self-consciousness.
Socially, hanging out with their peer group becomes more important for acceptance and the development of their self-esteem and self-concept. Some friends may not abide by your family rules – so parents, be ready for that. Provide choices so your child can experience autonomy within boundaries, without feeling like they need to act out to gain control.
Emotionally, hormones can make the tears flow more easily and annoyance bubble to the surface unexpectedly. That egocentric behaviour that was evident at two is back, and with a vengeance. Suddenly, “it’s all about me!”
Cognitively, the brain is still developing – rational reasoning and neural pathways are being created through practice and repeated learning and skills. Allow time and space (and patience) for that to occur.
Language, the ability to clearly communicate is becoming more refined, but it will also be age appropriate. Listen up, parents: try to understand and speak ‘their language’.
What can parents do?
Research shows that teenagers need about nine hours’ sleep a night to feel refreshed and calm the next day, so try to set (and stick to) regular bedtimes.
Prepare well balanced meals and provide a routine that involves eating around the dinner table with the whole family – having a constant routine will help your tween to feel secure and grounded. During dinnertime, take turns discussing the day. This is really important to teach your tween to share, vent, and download the day’s events, and it will also set up good habits for when things are worrying them – they are already used to sharing with you.
Avoid saying ‘you’ll be right!’ Instead use empathy to acknowledge your daughter’s feelings: ‘I can see that you are a bit nervous about today’, is a great start. Normalise their feelings instead of dismissing them, and be prepared to ‘listen’ – don’t necessarily talk or tell your child what to do. Developmentally, she will want to try to work things out independently and, at this point, the opinions of her peers may matter more than your suggestions. It’s best to be quiet and avoid conflict when trying to support. Explain the consequences of a range of actions and guide your tween to make the decision for her behaviour.
But also make sure you’re being reasonable about what you expect from your daughter. She is adjusting to a lot of changes and may need a bit of space and understanding. Praise positive actions, say ‘thank you’ for contributing to the household jobs, and respect her privacy. Give hugs to show love and acceptance, and most importantly, keep your home life stable so that the focus can be on starting school.
What can tweens do?
Make sure you go to bed between nine and 10pm every school night to get about nine hours sleep.
Practice taking deep breaths when you are feeling anxious. Take a deep breath in through your nose and hold it for three seconds and then exhale for five seconds – really blow out those feelings or thoughts of self-doubt. Do this three times, then smile! Smiling activates your brain to release a ‘happy hormone’ called dopamine.
Use positive self-talk instead of focusing on your feelings of self-doubt or hatred. Say whatever feels right for you, as long as it’s kind and positive.
Spend some time outside in nature. Look at the trees, watch the clouds go by – this calms your mind and body so that things don’t seem so overwhelming.
Remember that practically every young woman on the planet has felt, or is feeling, the same about starting a new school year. You are not alone.
Remember, it’s more about who you are than what you wear or how your hair is. So, smile when you meet someone new. Ask them a question like, “what school did you come from?” or something generic that will start a conversation.
Also remember that everyone has a need to fit in. No one wants to stand out – rather, they want to blend until they make new friends. So, take time to watch others and look out for someone else that doesn’t seem to know anyone. Go and talk to them. They will appreciate the company as much as you do!
Transitioning into a new situation can be scary whether you are five or fifty. Use these experiences to practice ways to move into a new environment in a way that fills you with self-confidence. Remember, each day is just one day in your whole life. If things don’t go the way you want them to – you can redo the day tomorrow.
Good luck and enjoy the adventure,
Dr Kathy Murray