How to help your teen settle into secondary school

“I will look stupid”, “No one will talk to me”, “I won’t find my way around the new school” – those are very common statements young people say when entering secondary school. The move from primary to secondary school can be an exciting time for many teens, but it is also a very challenging time for them and can in some teens lead to anxiety.

Many teenagers, as they undergo transition from childhood into adulthood, experience insecurities which lead them to believe the worst-case scenarios in various situations. This inner voice telling them that they are not good enough or not as popular as the other kids, can often lead to anxiety, depression and anger and therefore interfere with a successful transition into secondary school, making new friends and being open to new experiences in general.

Research in psychology has demonstrated that our thoughts determine how we feel emotionally, physically and determine our actions. The good news is, that this inner voice and harmful thinking styles can be changed. As a parent/guardian we can help teens to understand that their inner voice can be changed and in turn they will feel more confident and experience less anxiety and depression.

How our thoughts affect our feelings and behaviors is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is the form of therapy I practice. CBT is not about changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts, which is often a misconception people may hold. It is about recognising unhelpful thoughts, understanding how they make you feel emotionally and physically and how your thoughts are also connected to your behaviours. CBT shows you how to challenge those unhelpful thought patterns to come up with a more realistic thought which in turn will influence how you feel and behave.

There are different types of unhelpful thought patterns. One of the most prevalent that teens engage in is “Catastrophising” and “Mind reading”.

For example, Catastrophising thoughts are something along the lines of: “I won’t know anyone, I won’t be able to make new friends, I won’t find my way around, I won’t be able to keep up and will look stupid”. Mindreading thoughts are something like: “She thinks I am not cool”. “He doesn’t talk to me because he thinks I am not good at sport”.

As Parents/guardians you can help teens find a more realistic way of thinking and identify those unhelpful thinking patterns. The idea is not to squash and dismiss those unrealistic thoughts, but rather have a closer look at them. Ask your child to become a “scientist” and observe their thoughts, rather than to believe them to be facts. Help your child to write the thoughts down and then ask questions such as:

“Remember when you started your summer camp (or any other activity where they didn’t know many other children), how did you manage to make friends?”
Or let them think about times when they were able to show their strengths. Gather as much evidence that you can where the child has shown to be able to find their way, make friends etc.

Once you have all the evidence, you can ask your child to come up with a more helpful way of thinking about starting secondary school. The new way of thinking might go something like: “Ok I am a bit nervous about starting a new school, it will take a few days to find my way around and make new friends, but I was able to do that in my summer camp”.

Parents can take part in practicing this skill themselves, and act as role models and show their teens how to question unhelpful thoughts by looking at evidence for and against it and come up with an alternative.

Being able to manage thoughts that way is an invaluable life skill that will stand to your child and help build robust mental health for life.

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