Years ago I worked in the administration office of a Melbourne high school. One my strongest memories from that job was when all the year seven kids started. They looked so much smaller than the senior kids. They were often unsure of what to do and where to go and come to the office.
It can be stressful to start school at a new school
When my eldest son Damian started high school a couple of years ago, I didn’t know who was more anxious – him or me. In primary school, he was a strong student academically, did well in sports, was popular and had a good group of friends.
But moving from a small, local primary school to a high school of more than 1,500 students was very daunting. He would go from being a big fish in a small pond, to a tiny fish in a huge lake. I was scared he would be eaten alive.
How well would he fit in? Would he make friends easily? How will he cope with the transition and the demands of high school? Plus, throw into that mix the hormonal changes and challenges that come with puberty.
My son Damian started to change...
My carefree boy who loved nothing more than his cricket, footy and playing sports all day with friends, now took more of an interest in his appearance and girls. I used to have to remind him to comb his hair. How he wouldn’t leave home without enough hair gel to hold up several heads of hair and bathing in deodorant. Over the summer he seemed to grow several inches, a lawn of hair on his legs and a deeper voice. Where once he would (mostly) listen to me and chat to me with consideration, I now often got grunts, or “Mum, you just don’t understand. It’s not like that anymore.”
Not making the team
The first couple of weeks Damian seemed excited by the new environment, subjects and things to do. By the end of term 1 it became a tough grind. With only three other kids from grade 6 in his primary school going to his high school, Damian was starting over again, having to make new friends and proving himself. He often came home from school deflated. He missed his primary school friends and the security and confidence that came along with knowing he was good at school and sports. One day, he came home especially down because he didn’t do well in the athletics. The next week, he didn’t make the footy team try outs.
Small problems can quickly become huge in their minds
His reduced self-confidence led him to becoming quieter, more self-conscious and not wanting to bring attention to himself. He would be too worried to ask his teachers if he didn’t understand something in class. With the heavier workload, and his reluctance to ask for help at school and at home, he started to fall behind his school work too. Small things seemed to grow huge in his mind. Damian was anxious and stressed about school and in his head, everything seemed so hard. There were days when he struggled to get out of bed and looked for excuses to miss school.
I always thought I would be more concerned about Damian’s academic grades at school. But, I found myself being more worried about how he was coping mentally and struggling with his self confidence. I talked to my girlfriends with children in high school, and it was reassuring to know that their children had gone through some similar challenges. One girlfriend suggested getting Damian to see a counsellor.
When I mentioned this to Damian and suggested he speak to a counsellor, the chaplain or his year level coordinator at school, he was unsure. He said he’d think about it. When I offered to speak to them myself, he said, “No way, are you kidding mum? You can’t do that! It’s my life.”
Low self confidence leads to reluctance to ask for help
Deep down I knew that Damian was unlikely to speak to anyone by himself. Maybe he wasn’t ready to admit he needed help and thought that it was something he could handle it himself. Maybe he was anxious about what others at school might think of him, or was nervous about talking about his problems to someone.
When parents need to step in
After a couple of weeks without any changes, I revisited the topic with Damian. I knew I had to intervene. So I made an appointment with our GP who Damian has known since he was a toddler. That familiarity and trust helped Damian a lot when the GP referred him to a counsellor.
Still, I had to practically drag him to the first session (and second, and third). It’s been road of ups and downs, but having the support of a counsellor has helped Damian regain some of his confidence. Firstly, it helped him to understand that he wasn’t alone in what he was feeling or experiencing - that other kids, both daggy and cool went through similar things.
Learning ways to calm and relax Damian's mind
The counsellor was able give Damian practical ways to calm and relax his mind, approach new situations, think positively, reflect on his achievements and setbacks what he could learn from them. Gaining back his confidence had a good snowball effect too - Damian started taking the initiative to talk to his teachers when he was struggling or didn’t understand something.
These days it seems like there are more ups than downs. We know there’ll be more setbacks in future, but I’m relieved that Damian now has some coping strategies when that happens.
Free youth and family counselling
The transition from primary school to high school and from child to adolescent is tough for any child, even the most popular, smart, sporty or resilient ones. If you are concerned about your child’s wellbeing, get in touch with Inspiro’s Youth and Family Counselling services. Inspiro offers up to 12 free counselling sessions for eligible young adults aged 12 to 25 who live, work or study in the Yarra Ranges.
Call 9028 0153 to make an appointment with one of our counsellors today. Or...