The start of high school is one of the biggest developmental milestones in a teenager’s life. If you’re helping your teen to navigate this phase, you may have some questions. School psychologist Rebecca Anderson answers parents’ questions about how to support their teens through their transition to high school.
What is the high-school transition phase?
This transition phase is the move from primary to high school, but it’s more than simply moving from Year 6 to Year 7 (which typically occurs at age 11–13). Adolescence (the onset of puberty) is also happening at this age, and so it’s a time of physical, psychological and social development.
What are some of the main challenges teens will face during this time?
Teens experiencing this transition phase are going from what is familiar to what is unknown. This occurs whether they are an internal student (continuing K–12 at the same school) or switching from another school. There are lots of changes related to new friends, new subjects, new teachers and, in some cases, new living arrangements. The student may have long travel times to school or could be leaving home to attend boarding school. They are starting from scratch in a lot of ways.
Teens are also shifting from having parents and home as their main focus. Their friends may now become the most important people in their life.
There are also physical growth and body image concerns, and it’s a period of rapid change in how children think and problem solve. Research shows us that 50 per cent of mental health issues have their onset during adolescence, so early observation and action is important. Getting help early can help prevent later episodes.
What do parents need to know about this phase?
I want to reassure parents that it will be okay. Most teens will have a smooth transition to high school, and for those who don’t, someone will pick up on that. Schools have done a lot of work to prepare students for the transition phase. Not only does this help the young person to have a positive transition to high school, but it also helps the schools to run better. There are systems in place to support students, such as orientation programs, and it benefits the school to have a well-researched and well-reviewed transition process. Teens do pick up on how their parents feel about things, so it’s important for parents to be positive about this phase.
Is there anything parents need to watch out for during the transition phase?
Look out for any changes in your teen (particularly anxiety) that last for more than a couple of weeks. The young person might say they don’t want to go to school, or may physically refuse to go. This behaviour could suggest that they are experiencing some anxiety. If your teen isn’t talking about school, what they’ve done there and about their friends, it might suggest that they are having difficulty settling in. Talk to your teen about how they are going and listen to what they are saying. Ask them about their friendships, and normalise some of the feelings they might be having. It’s okay for your teen to feel nervous. We know from research that young people are pretty resilient. Even when things are challenging, most young people will cope well in the long term.
Is there a ‘normal’ timeframe for new students to settle into high school?
It varies based on the teen, the school and the circumstances. Most students tend to settle in pretty quickly. They turn up every day and have a go. There will always be some students, though, who find the transition more challenging, and they may take a bit longer to settle. For example, an introverted teen may hit the ground running academically and settle quickly in this area, but may take longer to adjust socially. You know your teen better than anyone, so let your school (Year 7 coordinator, school psychologist or pastoral care teacher), or GP know if you notice things that are out of character for them.
What can parents do to help their teen during the transition phase?
In the early weeks of high school, teens will likely be exhausted as they are using a lot of emotional energy to do new things. To cope, they may need more time with their parents and more relaxation time. It’s a good idea to ease off on after-school commitments (extracurricular activities and chores) during this time. If you can’t be home before and after school during the first few weeks, organise for a grandparent or someone you trust to be at home, so that your teen has someone to go to for support.
Another thing parents can do is be positive about the transition. Even if your own experience of school was difficult, sometimes you have to fake it until you make it. Approach the topic of high school as a good thing and explain that it’s normal to be excited, nervous and worried all at once. Parents are also encouraged to work with their school. If you have concerns, raise them. Information is the key to problem-solving.
Where can parents get support if they are concerned about their teen?
Find out from the school who is best to contact. In Year 7, it might be the teen’s homeroom teacher, as they will see your child every day. Before calling the principal, speak with the Year 7 coordinator or the school psychologist, who will also have regular contact with your child.
If your child is showing signs of anxiety, or stress, that have persisted for more than a few weeks contact your family GP.