Family Life: How can I help my daughter adjust to secondary school?
Q My daughter, who is now 13, went through terrible separation anxiety after starting national school.
It was very stressful for her and us. She did eventually settle but for a few years when she moved class again she would become upset. However, this eventually all disappeared. She is fourth in a family of five. She is a bright, happy and, I would always think, confident young girl who mixes well with her peers. She started secondary school in September with six friends with whom she went to national school. I hoped that she would have at least one of these old friends in her class with her but she has none. She said she knew two other girls in her new class through football and said it was ok. However, in her first week she was back to feeling sick. I thought it might be a tummy bug and kept her home one day. The following week she had flu and again was feeling sick. I took her to our doctor but apart from a sore throat there was nothing wrong. She has changed at home and is back sleeping in our bed and seems very sad. She says nothing is wrong and her teachers find her happy at school. We are giving her lots of TLC and reassurance. This is several further weeks on and some days I think she is good and some days not. I know we have to give it time and I am sure she will get through it. Is there anything we are doing wrong or anything else we could do to make it easier for her to settle into secondary school?
A It doesn't sound like you are doing anything wrong. You seem to have a good insight into her worries and struggle with making the transition from primary to secondary school.
It is interesting that she found it so difficult to get used to change throughout her primary school years. This suggests that she really likes, and relies upon, consistency and similarity.
When we are faced with change it is natural to become anxious. This seems to be what has happened to your daughter every time she was faced with a change in her school environment and personnel.
Indeed the change from primary to secondary school is huge in comparison to the change from one teacher or classroom to another within primary school.
Her tummy pains might be an extension of the 'butterflies in stomach' feeling that many of us have experienced when anxious.
I know you have pointed out the difficulty she has making new friends. This can be a challenge. However, I don't think it is the source of her tummy pains. You have recognised that she is a confident and sociable girl, in which case she is probably coping fine with getting to know others in her class.
If you are worried about this aspect, then talk to her year head and ask that the teachers keep a special eye out in case she is being picked on or excluded.
Secondary school requires adaptations from children, including a whole new building to familiarise themselves with, moving between classes every 40 minutes or so, working out the social aspects of a new group of peers, not having a single-teacher point of contact, greater demands on individual responsibility to be on time to class with the right books, and a longer, more tiring day.
Any or all of these could be the source of her anxiety, and it is her anxiety that is leading her to feel sick and to want to avoid school. It is also why she is looking for greater security by wanting to sleep in your bed at night.
Despite her anxiety it is important not to panic yourself. It could be easy for you to over-identify with her struggles to settle in and you might, inadvertently, give her a message that she can't cope. However, your daughter has shown that she has the resilience and skills that have helped her to cope with change in the past.
So, do continue to be empathetic towards her and acknowledge the range of challenges she faces settling into school. Then, as you have mentioned, be patient with her. Getting accustomed to the new way of secondary school mostly requires time. Having time to adjust is the most significant factor that will help her to become more settled.