Moving from primary to secondary school can signal major change for many children. Twelve year olds who were until recently seniors in primary school become juniors overnight again.
They leave behind familiar faces and places and enter a new world, usually a bigger school, with new teachers, students, subjects, an increased workload and a longer day.
In addition, the onset of puberty tends to coincide with the transition to secondary school bringing with it more challenges for children and indeed parents.
Eileen Kelly, a psychologist and the director of the Diocesan Pastoral Centre in Newtownsmith which runs parenting programmes, says these are physical, physiological and social.
“The physical changes involve the body growing, growth spurts - a new body to manage. Physiological changes involve hormones and moods while the social changes involve moving from child to adult and finding the balance as parents between treating them as children or adults. We give them more responsibilities but we need to be aware that we are still responsible for their wellbeing and have the final say.”
The most obvious change is in body growth, she explains. “Just becoming more aware of this new body can lead to feeling awkward and self-conscious and this can be a challenge.”
Young people need to be able to express the concerns which accompany such major changes and how these impact on their lives. “For example, children who are good at football or perhaps dancing may have difficulty in incorporating these bodily changes as their body becomes heavier and their arms and legs get longer. The skill which has served them well for several years may, temporarily, desert them. It is well known that self-esteem does take a dip during the adolescent years.”
Add to this the physiological - acne, hormones, moods - and you are into a minefield, she says.
“ In addition we have the awakening of the sexual characteristics and the awareness and confusion which can accompany this. It is important to reassure them and keep talking. Do not dismiss or try to diminish the worries. But let them know ‘it will pass’. If medical help is needed, get it!”
She says the transition from primary to secondary school is a good example of the “enormous social change” which occurs around this time.
“Physically moving away from the smaller and more familiar local school to bigger secondary school …. more places to get lost in! It can be a challenge to find/locate the right classroom/lockers, etc, to become familiar with the geography of the new surroundings.
“Also the school is usually further away from home so the day is longer, more subjects; especially ones with which we, as parents, are not familiar. This can be perceived as undermining our authority/our status as ‘all-knowing’. Perhaps for the first time we will not be able to contribute to helping with the homework. In addition, there are more teachers to contend with…getting to know their individual `modus operandi`..”
The children’s social circle is widening, also. Parents may no longer know their friends as they meet new people.
“Remember the transition from primary to secondary school is a mirror image of the changes which are happening in children’s personal lives. The moving further from the home base, the new social circle, new academic subjects, all these reflect the myriad life changes. For the next few years they will fluctuate from child to adult and back again. Our job as parents is to support them as they negotiate their way through the challenges of the adult world and be able to gradually let go.”
What to expect
How can parents help their children? Eileen says tell them what to expect but do it in a way which conveys your belief in them to master this transition both academically and socially.
“Don`t pass on your own fears. If you have concerns talk to someone who knows, not another parent. Encourage your children to be aware, to take notice of their surroundings by asking them questions about their rooms, lockers, the general geography of the school.
“Talk about some of your own experiences and how you coped. Encourage them to make new friends and make an effort to get to know them, too. Listen, stay in touch, hear the stories. You don’t have to act on every idea but it is important to give them a hearing and to be familiar with what is going on for them.
“Talk to them about their new undertaking, how they plan to cope, how they view the new academic challenge and how they will manage the extra homework.”
Become involved in school activities, as far as possible, by attending meetings and generally displaying an interest in the life and workings of the school, recommends the psychologist.
“Research tells us that when parents display an interest in school life and become involved in the activities their children perform better academically and generally cope better.”
Eileen suggests that while they are beginning to move into the adult world it is a good idea to keep them engaged with the family by being involved in family meals, outings and chores, however minimal.
“Research tells us that being involved in household chores is good for their self-esteem! This involvement builds a sense of responsibility and capability and can offer surprising opportunities for valuable informal chats. In addition, while friends are important and to be encouraged, being involved with family keeps the influence of peer pressure in balance.”
During the difficult moments when you are questioning your parenting abilities and rapidly losing heart and patience, remind yourself that are involved in a major life changing undertaking - preparing your child for the adult world.
“It is our privilege and responsibility to pass on our values. In the mobile world in which we now live the extended family support of past generations and the close-knit community support of the past is no longer available, therefore our job becomes more challenging. Also with the availability of information and mis-information through access to internet and television our values and belief systems are being challenged earlier and earlier in our parenting life.
“As a parent you are nurturing the skills and confidence to become a well-adjusted and fully functioning adult capable of pursuing their own dreams, of having something worthwhile to offer to society and capable also of enjoying the joys of relationships with family and friends.”