Wednesday 18 September 2019

My 13-year-old is struggling to settle into secondary school

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from our parenting expert on how to help with the difficult transition from primary to secondary school and on how to teach the moral consequences of stealing.

Question: My daughter has found the transition from primary to secondary school very hard. She has few friends and has become quite introverted. Her work is good but no longer outstanding, as it was in primary school. Her teachers tell me it can take time to settle and none of them are unduly concerned. But I am worried she may become depressed; she does not want to go to school in the mornings and this causes lots of conflict. She is physically quite immature and has not entered puberty. Could that have something to do with her lack of confidence?

David replies: Lots of children can find the transition from primary to secondary school quite hard. There are lots of changes, including changes in routines, workload, friends, teachers and extracurricular activities. All this occurs as their hormones may also be kicking into gear, or may be flowing full tilt.

No wonder, in the midst of all that, our children may feel overwhelmed. My guess is that this is what is happening for your daughter. It is a big jump from feeling upset and overwhelmed, to becoming depressed, so try not to panic if she seems reluctant to keep going to school.

With all the stresses she may feel, your goal is to simply understand her perspective about them, and try to work out, with her, how she feels about them.

In practice, you already have some ideas about how she might be feeling. So you can tell her that you notice she seems withdrawn, unhappy and more introverted.

Be sure not to present these as problematic, but do point out that you notice they are different to how she used to be. You can draw comparisons to how she seemed to be during sixth class academically, emotionally and socially.

Then go through a process, with her, of trying to work out what might be at the heart of these changes in her demeanour and mood. To do this, you might want to suggest the potential reasons to her, much as you have done in your query to me.

So raise the topic of puberty, for example, and wonder, with her, about what impact it has that it seems to be coming later for her than for many of her peers.

The generally accepted wisdom is that early onset of puberty is usually a positive experience for boys as it gives them a size and strength advantage over their peers and can add to their status as a leader, or a "man".

In girls, early onset of puberty is often a more difficult experience, with changes to their body singling them out for unwanted notice or attention from boys, either their peers or older boys, and sometimes rejection by their same age friends.

But, if your daughter feels that puberty is coming very late for her, she may feel that she doesn't fit in, in terms of her body shape. To her, looking like a small girl and being physically different, could be devastating, giving her the sense that something is wrong with her.

You may find, as you talk with her, that she isn't bothered at all. But if she is bothered, then you can listen, understand and reassure her about the worries she has.

Similarly, you can raise the issue of making new friends, talking about how hard that can be, showing that you understand about how isolating it can feel if it is hard to befriend people.

Talk about the nature of the academic expectations, now, and how she might feel caught by surprise at the standard expected in secondary school. Show her that you can get the fact that she might be put out if she doesn't feel she is performing as well as she expected, or as well as she used to.

Once you show your daughter lots of empathy about the difficulties that she seems to be experiencing you can feel confident about continuing to be firm about sending her to school.

There is a period of transition for every child going to secondary school and that period of transition will end. Your daughter may not yet know that, but you can be reassured that she just needs the time to settle, much like the teachers have said.

Safe in that knowledge, your job is just to be firm about the need to go to school and understanding about how difficult that may be. If you show confidence in her ability to cope, it will help her to find the same confidence.

My seven-year-old son stole from a shop. When  we challenged him he threatened to kill himself

Question: Our seven-year-old took a sports wristband from a shop today and I only found it when we were home. He has stolen sweets twice before about 10 months ago. We grounded him for a week, then from sports and play dates. When we both spoke to him today about it, telling him how disappointed we were, he got really upset and said he just really wanted it and couldn't help himself. We were fairly calm about it, but he said he would kill himself with a knife. We were very shocked and now we are not sure what to do. Could he mean it?

David replies: Of course your son "could" mean it, but the chances are very small that he did mean it when he threatened to kill himself. It seems much more likely to me that your son may have felt ashamed about his actions, embarrassed that he was caught, or worried about the consequences.

His threat of killing himself is, I think, designed to throw you off guard and to avoid further discussion or further dealing with the more serious issue of stealing.

I know you say that you grounded your son, previously, when he took sweets, but I wonder if he has learned anything from that consequence? He may have learned that you were cross and unhappy with him, but did he learn anything about the rights and wrongs of taking things that aren't his?

His theft of the sports wristband suggests that he hasn't learned anything yet and so your responses to the first two instances seem to have been ineffective. This is now the third time that he has stolen something. He is no longer making mistakes; he is deliberately making a decision to steal.

Stealing is different to other forms of misbehaviour in children. Most of their misbehaviour falls into the realm of defiance, opposition to us, or careless and thoughtless behaviour towards others.

But stealing is about moral right and wrong and so we need to respond to it at a different level. We need to make it very clear that doing wrong in this way causes a very direct harm to the other person and that the wrong must be "made right" by some kind of reparation.

I know there is a delay between your writing to me and when I can publish my response and so I am sure you have already had to deal with the wristband theft. Hopefully you have brought him back to the shop where he took it from and made him return it to the owner or manager.

When children take things from shops it is not enough that we give out to them or that we punish them. They need to experience the natural consequence of whatever sanction the shop owner chooses to impose. When we have morally erred, it is good for us to experience some suffering as a means of paying back.

Learning to be responsible is all about realising that we can make any choices we like as long as we are willing to bear the consequences.

Mind you, bringing your child in front of the owner won't be very effective if the owner feels indulgent and merely gives them a gentle telling off.

So, if you have a young child, you may need to prime the shopkeeper that you will be bringing your son to return some stolen goods and ask that they be properly upset about someone stealing from them.

Hopefully, too, the shopkeeper will expect some kind of reparation from your son, some way of paying back, maybe expecting real payment which you then have to dock from any pocket money your son might otherwise get.

With older children and teenagers they may get reported to the gardaí for their theft, and if so then that is no harm either.

We have to show moral backbone of our own, and support our children to do the right thing by owning up, rather than helping them avoid the real consequences of taking something that doesn't belong to them, by applying some artificial consequences ourselves.

So, if you haven't already done so, the next time he steals, you have to make him own up and suffer the real consequences of his actions.

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