The question: We recently moved to a new neighbourhood, which means my daughter will be starting Grade 9 without the comfort of having her friends there too. She's terrified of starting high school without familiar faces and as much as I try to reassure her that she will make new friends she is still extremely unhappy. What do I do?
The answer: The transition to high school can be a difficult one for many teens – the shift from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a big pond can feel intimidating and overwhelming. Add on to that the differing demands of high school, teenage hormones, and the absence of other stabilizing factors (friends) and a potential recipe for unhappiness can be brewing.
For all of us, situations feel particularly stressful when they are (1) unpredictable and (2) out of our control. Try to be mindful of ways you can foster a sense of predictability and control for your daughter.
As a parent your urge is to want to protect your child from any hurtful situation, and often the approach parents take is to try to reassure through telling (e.g., "you will make new friends;" "you'll be fine;" "it's not as scary as you think"). Unfortunately, this is not the most effective strategy. Think about times you were in a stressful or upsetting situation – likely, someone telling you it would be better didn't work. Not only can this approach feel like it is minimizing the concerns we have, but it can feel invalidating of the feelings we are having. (Most people take this approach by the way – not out of ill will, but from a lack of awareness of knowing what to do or say.)
All of us have a core fundamental need to feel understood and validated, particularly when feeling stressed. So start by focusing on simply listening to your daughter. Do not interrupt and do not problem-solve – just ask open-ended questions to understand what she is most scared about ("help me understand what you are most scared about and what you think it will be like").
Try to get her to be as specific as possible and to go through all the worst-case scenarios she is imagining (e.g., "I won't have anyone to eat lunch with"). You must resist the urge to tell her she is inaccurate or that what she is fearing won't happen. Instead, ask her how likely she thinks it is that those situations will arise. And ask her what makes her think that is going to happen.
Try to get her to verbalize the worst outcome and ask her to think about what the most likely situation may be. Ask her to be specific about what she is most worried about ("if you got to school, and you had no one to eat lunch with, what is most upsetting about that to you?"). Have her think about how she would deal with the worst imagined situation ("if you were all alone at lunch, what things do you think you could do to make the situation better?").
Encourage her to talk to family friends or cousins that are a bit older and can provide her some words of advice and comfort, as that may help. Then, just be there for her as a listening ear particularly during the first few days and weeks of high school.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network's Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV's The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra
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