Adjusting to a New High School
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Adjusting to a New High School

Parenting expert Jan Faull, MEd, on fitting into a new environment as a teen.

Q. "My 14-year-old has started a new high school, and she is miserable. Though she's never had trouble making friends before, she's filled with anxiety this year. She's having trouble eating and cries often. Though she is confiding in me about her anxiety and sadness, I'm not sure what steps I should be taking. Is her reaction a normal adjustment to a new school or a sign of something more troubling?"

A. It isn't unusual for a teen starting high school to feel miserable. It's a huge adjustment as adolescents make their way around a new building, try to fit in to the more intimidating social scene of the high school, and take on the challenges of more sophisticated classes such as biology, geometry, or a foreign language.

Give it a month before talking to the school counselor about your daughter's anxiety and sadness. Time is often all it takes for teenagers to settle in and find their niche. During this month, do what you can to build her resilience as she faces these changes, challenges, and chaotic feelings.

  1. Ask her to think about what might make her days go easier. By posing this question, you may set her own problem-solving skills into motion.
  2. Offer her your belief in her effectiveness. Don't offer a "poor you" approach. Instead, exude confidence that she has what it takes to manage life in high school.
  3. Ask her if there is anything you can do to help her. Although making the adjustment is her problem, not yours, there are ways you can help her. It may be as simple as making her lunch, or as difficult as helping her talk to her advisor about changing her class schedule.
  4. Inquire about who else might offer her support. Sometimes adults other than Mom or Dad can offer objective insights from their experience and expertise: a coach, teacher, tutor, family friend, relative, neighbor, or pastor.
  5. Suggest that she delve into her hobbies in her spare time. Hobbies help kids feel competent when other aspects of their lives seem to be out of their control.
  6. Validate her feelings of anxiety and sadness. Communicate empathy and understanding. Ask, "How are you feeling?" If she can't articulate her feelings, put her obvious emotions into words for her.
  7. Offer an optimistic view and express faith that although she's facing difficulty right now, negative events can be surmounted and negative feelings will subside. If you, a relative, or family friend had similar feelings when entering high school, tell her about those experiences.
  8. Encourage her to talk about high school. Simply ask, "What's going on?" "What was your day like?" "What's the worst part?" "Is there anything you like about it?"

While you use these eight approaches, notice if she's making progress in her adjustment. As you accept her feelings, encourage her to problem-solve while exuding confidence that she will eventually settle in and succeed. If this is not the case after a month, it's time to call the high school counselor.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.