Anxiety surrounding school safety is at an all-time high. Even without that, going back to school is stressful enough, especially for students leaving middle school and going into high school. That can be both an exciting and nerve-wracking time and can cause anxiety in parents and children alike.
Dr. Nicole Mavrides, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at the University of Miami, says the anticipation of this transition is much worse than the transition itself.
“Middle school to high school is hard due to the social and emotional aspect to it,” Mavrides said. “It seems like a big discrepancy in age, but it is so similar to the day-to-day of middle school that once they get there it’s not much different.”
Parents may worry about the age difference between freshmen and seniors — 14 to 18. Children may be thinking, “I’m so short, “I’m so little,” or “How am I going to fit in?” What is important for your child to know is that all kids are feeling this way. It’s normal for parents to be worried about their children because they want them to do well. Normalizing this anxiety for parents and kids alike is huge, according to Mavrides.
At her practice at the University of Miami, Mavrides sees a lot of families, and knows that times of transitions are always hard, especially if there is a history of anxiety. She stresses that keeping open communication with your child is imperative, and can lead to a lot of important conversations about drugs, anxiety and other issues.
Mavrides answers some questions parents commonly ask:
▪ How can I help ease the transition from middle to high school?
First comes the adjustment from summer back to school. A week or so before school starts, parents should start to slowly set their children’s bedtime back and have them get up earlier, so that the first day of school isn’t a complete shock to the system. The difference in school starting times is significant because middle school in Miami-Dade generally starts at 9:10 a.m. but high school begins almost two hours earlier at 7:20. In Broward, the start times range between 7:30 and 8:45, depending on the school, for both middle and high school. Parents can also help by making sure their child knows when orientation is and what the school has to offer.
In the beginning, parents may need to continue to be involved in checking in on homework assignments, checking the parent portal, or teaching students how to use a planner. Having a routine — an after-school routine that includes homework— is very helpful in freshman year, and teaches children how to be efficient.
Block scheduling also begins in some high schools, which is a huge concern for everyone, especially disorganized children. We recommend keeping two different backpacks depending on the schedule, as well as color-coordinating binders and notebooks. This is a good way to keep up with schoolwork. If they get behind, they need to ask for help.
Children are very worried about fitting in when they get to high school, so encourage them to join clubs or groups and talk to other kids in their classes. It’ll take time, but children will make friends.
▪ What happens if my child doesn’t get good grades during freshman year?
Even if children start out not doing well their freshman year, that does not mean they’re not going to go to the college they want. While freshman year might not go as well as they expected, they tend to improve year to year. They are just getting adjusted, and that will take some time. It’s important to start out slow in ninth grade — get used to school; get grades and study skills together; figure out how to balance school work and extracurriculars, and try to find one or two activities. Children need to figure out how to balance all this, and not overwhelm themselves their first year. They don’t have to do it all freshman year, there’s time to build on things from then on.
▪ What advice do I give if my child is anxious or stressed?
Most kids are just trying to find their niche, which is very important. They need to find a group they feel comfortable with, people similar to them. It takes a good couple of weeks or a month to get used to school and find friends. If children can’t find a group and anxiety continues, then reaching out to a school guidance counselor or a pediatrician may be helpful. If parents are concerned, they need to sit their kids down and try to have a conversation. If children won’t speak to their parents or the parents don’t feel comfortable bringing it up, then the parents need to make an appointment with a professional. Some kids may need to be in therapy or be prescribed medication for anxiety, and in that case parents can reach out to a pediatrician or psychiatrist.
▪ Does my child need to be in all honors or advanced classes to get into college?
Not every child is going to do well being in those kinds of classes, and that is OK. Some kids may feel more comfortable in regular classes, and if that’s the case, then they should be there. Parents should help children and not overwhelm them if they’re having trouble in something, while pushing them into their strengths.
If children do take Advanced Placement (AP) classes and can’t pass the AP test, that’s also OK. They won’t get college credit, but that’s no big deal. Tests can be anxiety provoking, but they won’t happen for a while — and kids get more used to them. That’s one of the reasons that most freshmen don’t take Advanced Placement courses.
It’s also important for kids to not let schoolwork suffer by being too heavy in extracurricular activities for college. If a child is interested in one major activity, that’s what colleges want to see.
▪ What do I do about my child’s social media use?
When children get to high school, they may be using social media more frequently, or may have new people on it that their parents don’t know. So parents may need to monitor their child’s social media to make sure nothing inappropriate is going on.
Cyber bullying still takes place in high school, so parents need to keep tabs on what kids are doing. It is important to remember that whatever is on social media and the Internet is out there forever — pictures can follow you. In addition, colleges and jobs will look at social media accounts, so children need to be careful.
▪ With conversations surrounding school shootings becoming prevalent, do I talk about this with my child?
This next year, there is more anxiety about going back to school. Make sure that children know there might be an increased police presence and more guards walking around, but that it’s for their safety. Having more protection around is going to be helpful. In addition, they’re going to have drills for school shootings. If they start to become uncomfortable, parents need to let them know that it’s normal to be anxious about this.
Parents are worried, and so are teachers, but the goal is to keep children safe. Teachers and schools are doing everything they can. Regardless, kids going to high school are going to be anxious about it because this can happen anywhere. A little bit of anxiety is normal, but when it starts to affect your sleep, appetite, behavior and more, that’s when you need to get some help.
Some warning signs of anxiety may be increased isolation or off behavior, and symptoms of depression are similar — different sleep behavior, slipping grades, and decreased concentration. Therefore, it’s important to keep open communication with children. If parents are worried then they need to go to their school counselor and talk to someone.
▪ What do I do about drugs and alcohol?
Parents need to be supportive of their children and have open communication with them. Parents should talk about drugs and alcohol with their kids, and what their expectations are for them. That means making sure children know that “vaping” and electronic cigarettes may look cool, but they’re just as bad for you as smoking cigarettes. And while marijuana is legal in many places, leading children to think it’s not a big deal, it’s still a real drug that’s pretty dangerous.
Having these kinds of conversations early on is important, so children know if they start to get into situations they’re uncomfortable with, they can call their parents. Parents worry about drugs, just as kids are thinking about it, so that line of communication is important because kids won’t be honest if there isn’t an avenue for it.
Parents need to let their children know that they aren’t perfect and that they made mistakes as well. While they expect their children to make mistakes, they want to keep them as safe as possible. It’s important for parents to pick their battles — don’t worry about the smaller things, such as kids dying their hair. Let them figure out their self-expression and identity.