For many teens, starting high school is an exciting time. They will make new friends, discover various interests and participate in diverse activities. But, for some teens starting high school is a time of stress and anxiety, especially in the wake of the school disruption and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Transitioning to high school can be a time of mixed emotions. Teens are moving away from an often well-known environment toward the unfamiliar, which can be thrilling. But newness and change can also fuel worry and anxiety, especially if walking into a new and unpredictable situation.
As a researcher in educational psychology and a psychologist in the areas of school, clinical and counselling psychology — and drawing on my own parenting experience — I know that while it might not always be obvious, teens need to know they have a safe place to discuss their concerns.
Taking the time to talk with your teen about starting high school as their experiences unfold will set the stage for ongoing, open communication, which can help throughout their high school experience and beyond.
New world of high school
For some teens, the thought of starting at a different school where there will be new teachers, school staff and peers can feel overwhelming. Not only do new high schoolers have to find their way through a strange and sometimes much larger building, but they must also navigate the new academic and social and emotional world of high school.
This transition amidst the educational impacts of COVID-19 can be compounded for youth who are racialized, marginalized, 2SLGBTQIA+, neurodivergent, who recently arrived in Canada or are experiencing mental health challenges — and others who may face added barriers, discrimination and bullying.
Teens may also be surprised and unprepared for the shift in the amount of homework, and changes in classroom rules and expectations. They may also find it hard juggling school, friends, extracurriculars and other responsibilities while getting a good night’s sleep.
While teens are heading off to high school, their parents may also be experiencing feelings they have not felt since they sent their child to kindergarten. Letting your child go somewhere you cannot follow can be challenging as a parent.
The wisdom we had hoped to share with our teens based on our experiences that we believed would protect and help them succeed may, unfortunately, be obsolete.
So how do you prepare your teen (and yourself) for the transition to high school?
1. Keep the lines of communication open
Trying to talk with your teen can sometimes be a source of exasperation and frustration. Some parents and caregivers find that the child they used to communicate with so easily now responds in one-word utterances or even nonverbal gestures.
Luckily, there are many strategies that you can use to encourage more open, reciprocal dialogue with your teen, such as using texts, writing notes or talking in the car. However you engage with your teen, they must know that you care and are listening to what they say. When talking in person, put down your phone and be present with them.
2. Remind them it takes time to adjust to big changes
Sometimes just acknowledging that the transition to high school is a significant change can be comforting for your teen. Pointing out and talking about examples where they have handled change well in the past can be helpful. Also, sharing your experiences can be another great way to connect with your teen. When deciding what to share, parents should be honest while considering what is age-appropriate for their child.
3. Talk with them about school-life wellness
This is a great time to talk about how you manage your many roles and responsibilities (if you do it well as a model or if you struggle with it as a cautionary tale). You can talk with them about time management, organization and prioritizing tasks and help walk them through how to plan for school and other commitments. Also, talk about the importance of sleep and engaging in activities, events and relationships that help them feel well.
4. Identify coping strategies
It can be helpful to review past successful strategies with your teen. Ask them how they will know when they need to use a strategy and how they will use it, especially at school. It can also be useful to talk about new strategies they haven’t tried that may be helpful.
5. If your teen is struggling, help them find the right help.
Talking with your teen about their mental health and wellness is important. However, sometimes the help that our teen needs may be more than we can give.
Knowing when your teen could benefit from talking with a mental health practitioner or needs additional academic support at school and how to access those supports is essential. During these times, it is important to work with your teen to reach out to supports and resources at school or in your community.
Taking the time to connect with your teen, whenever and however you can, will help them know that there is a caring and supportive space for them to talk about the big (and little) things going on in their lives.