A year of ups and downs
I was worried - summer holidays were coming to an end and my son told me he wasn’t nervous about starting Year 7 at a new school. Although I was trying to hide it, I was a nervous wreck – a new school meant new teachers, new friends, a new campus to navigate, older students - how could he not be nervous?
In the hope that he’d open up about some perhaps more deep-seated fears, I told him, in some time and space away from other family members, it was OK to feel nervous and recollected with him how anxious I had been about starting high school.
Silence. He gave me nothing.
We launched into Term 1 and everything seemed to be going fine. He made lots of new friends, which was a big relief to me after he’d been a little shy in primary school and didn’t play the more common sports.
Then his assessments started to come through, as well as some feedback that he wasn’t as organised as he should be – despite my best efforts to foster responsibility and self-management.
What had happened to my pride and joy who had been at, or nearly at, the top of the class throughout primary school?
I nearly spit out my coffee when he said to me “Maybe I’m just not clever enough for high school”. It broke my heart that he would think this.
I knew that being “clever” had nothing to do with it, but perhaps he needed more guidance as he learned to manage the additional responsibilities and the workload that came with Year 7. His father and I made sure we were available at homework time and provided encouragement
and support that helped him get back on track.
As I came to realise, the transition to high school is about much more than just starting a new school. With the start of Year 7, our young boys are becoming young men, and with that comes a host of changes and challenges for our boys, and for us as parents.
So it was reassuring to hear from renowned experts on adolescent boys that his behaviour was normal – and that I was on the right track with my parenting approach.
The experts’ advice for parents
1. Have patience
Michael Grose, founder of Parenting Ideas, is one of Australia's leading parenting educators. He is the author of 10 books and has written extensively on the difference between boys and girls.
“Starting high school happens at a time when boys are going through puberty, so there are internal changes happening alongside external transitions.” - Michael Grose
He pointed out that boys may need extra coaching with organisational and time management challenges during this transition, and suggests parents lighten the load of normal chores at the start of the year.
“Boys like routine and some can struggle with change, they need patience when things are strange and different.”
2. The importance of friends
Mr Grose said that among boys, much more so than girls at this age, friendship groups could widen significantly because they “flocked together” more.
“Boys tend to have the approach that if you play the same sport as me, you’re my friend. This means boys can adjust more quickly than girls to the social aspects of high school”, he said.
Mr Grose also pointed out that there may be a blip in their academic performance because there is so much going on at the start of the year.
When it comes to making new friends, Mr Grose urges parents to have a conversation about what makes a good friend, and that this is especially important at this age when boys start to look towards their friends and peers for self-esteem and rely less on their parents.
“Often it takes two goes at finding good friends – halfway through the year boys will find their real friends,” said Mr Grose.
Mr Grose also noted that boys generally hate to stand out, they want to blend in, and as they’re exposed to wider groups them may put limits on themselves. Often boys will dumb down, and put each other down.
"It’s about having a good group and choosing the right friends because those choices do impact on learning," he said.
3. Grow your own problem solvers
Dr Arne Rubinstein is an expert on adolescent development and the author of the book The Making of Men. He also runs the Rites of Passage Institute and delivers a range of workshops and camps.
Away from the social sphere, Dr Rubinstein recommends parents encourage kids at this age to become their own problem solvers.
“Teach and guide them on how to study, how to organise themselves and take more responsibility for themselves, their belongings and performance at school.” - Dr Arne Rubenstein.
At this critical time he urges parents to identify and acknowledge the level of nervousness and anxiety boys may be feeling and provide support for their son – and watch out for any warning signals that they may not be coping.
"When boys are struggling they tend to express that by acting out – getting angry, misbehaving or locking themselves away."
4. Become an active listener
Perth-based parenting expert Clare Christie of Harmony at Home recommends parents develop active listening, that is, trying to understand what is really going on, so they give advice that is relevant to their children.
When children, boys especially, are transitioning to high school, ask open-ended questions, which don’t require a simple yes or no response.
These can be harder to formulate but can result in more revealing answers. Some examples are: “You seem upset about what happened today?” or: “You seem reluctant to get ready?”
If you do get a “yes’’ or “no” listen also for the tone and be mindful of the body language, then formulate more questions accordingly.
Ms Christie said that with boys, talking while throwing or kicking a ball can be effective because the activity interrupts their anxiety level. She said talking and walking side by side, or when driving in the car without any other distractions could also be highly worthwhile.
“When the (emotional) temperature is high, provide space either for yourself as a parent, or for your child. Don’t push when people are upset, negotiating with an upset person has much less impact than when people are calm.” - Clare Christie
The three "Ps"
In conclusion, Mr Grose recommends parents keep these three “Ps” in mind for the transition year:
- Focus on the positive, look for positive aspects of the transition and good experiences at school – discuss and celebrate these with your son.
- Be patient with your sons.
- Have perspective: young people can tend to catastrophise. With empathy for their point of view, try to help them to see things in perspective and focus on what is important.
And my own son’s experience: He said at the beginning of the school year he was given a lot of advice about how to successfully transition. With a tendency to be rather cynical for his age he thought a lot of it sounded “cheesy” at first. Then, he said, about half-way through the year it all started to make sense.
By this time I was starting to hear the same boys’ names come up in our conversations about school as my son began to form solid friendships that would last beyond Term 4.
He said he also realised his school’s advice to “be a man for others” was more than a platitude as he learnt that he had better relationships at school and at home by not focussing on himself as much as he had previously.
And, finally, he started to learn that being organised and working hard at school did pay off. I think that lesson is still somewhat of a work in progress - but there have been some definite steps towards greater self-management.