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Ask the expert: My daughter hates secondary school

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The transition to secondary school can be a big challenge for many young people. Photograph: iStockphoto

Q Our 13-year-old daughter hates school. She is not able to give me a specific reason, just that she hates every minute of the day. She has a sad face going out every morning and a sadder one coming back in the afternoon. This can swiftly turn to anger depending on which way one might look at her, or what’s for dinner. I wish I could make her feel better.

I haven’t approached the school but I get the feeling that they see a totally different girl to the one who presents herself to us. I imagine they see a very capable mature girl with a good attitude.

She started first year last September with a good enough attitude but things have been slipping rapidly so that she is unhappy going in most days.

Part of the problem is that she missed out on getting onto sports teams due to an injury and this seems to have set her back. She is doing okay with the work and got good results in her Christmas exams though she stresses about the study.

Looking at her friendships, there is one girl from her primary school class in the new class and she has got to know a lot more people at this stage. However, she keeps saying she doesn’t like anyone in her school including her “friends”.

She can get worked up about events in school. For example, before Easter there was a charity mini play she was due to be involved in and was anxious for the whole week before saying she wasn’t going to do it with tears and fits of anxiety, and so on. This was exacerbated by a friend asking her on a sleepover on the same night and her not wanting to go – more fits of anxiety and tantrums.

In the end she opted out of the play and did not go to the sleepover, but I did make her meet up with the friend subsequently and pressed upon her that I wasn’t going to allow her to shrink away, avoiding everybody.

She is constantly looking for hugs. There is nothing wrong with this of course but she can be extremely needy emotionally. How can I help her be happier?

A It sounds as if your daughter is having a very difficult time at the moment and there could be a number of reasons for this.

First of all, at 13 she is at the height of adolescence when many young people, flooded with hormones, go through periods of emotional mood swings, increased sensitivity and anxiety as well as being insecure about fitting in and making friends.

As you have discovered, these anxieties can easily be communicated as irritability and anger, and many parents experience a period of increased meltdowns and tantrums.

Secondly, the transition to secondary school can be a big challenge for many young people. They move from being the eldest kids in a relatively protected primary school environment to being the youngest in a much more demanding environment with lots more pressure and having to manage a schedule with several teachers.

They also have to navigate making new friends and taking up new interests so they can find their niche in a new context; this is a lot for a young person to manage. Like your daughter, lots of children can go through periods of being unhappy going to school, experiencing it as very stressful, and they can end up taking these stresses out on everyone at home.

As a parent it is hard to be on the receiving end of these meltdowns and harder still to witness your child being so unhappy for a period.

Being understanding

The first thing you can do to help your daughter is to try to be understanding about what she is going through. Acknowledge with her how hard growing up and the first year of secondary school might be and how hard it can be to find your feet and to build a group of friends, and so on.

Explain how normal it is to have mood swings at her age and how you understand this. Sharing stories with her of your own challenges in school and how you or another family member coped might help her. You want her to know she is not alone and that you understand and are on her side.

Help her express her emotions better

While it is hard to experience and witness, it is still good that she lets her guard down at home and reveals her unhappiness to you as this gives you a chance to help her.

Over time your goal is to help her communicate her feelings more constructively (by saying she is having a hard time rather than taking it out on people at home).

The fact that she wants hugs and comfort is a good thing and I would suggest that you provide as many of these as possible. In fact, this can be a good way of diverting angry feelings. For example, by letting her have a good cry in your arms when unhappy about something is a good way to support her.

Problem solve patiently

Once she feels supported and listened to, the goal is to help her think through and problem-solve the challenges that are causing her unhappiness.

Whenever she raises a problem, set a goal you can work on together, such as thinking through how she might make friends, identifying ways she could get back into sports in school or exploring how to make homework less stressful.

The ideal is that you act as a “coach” and encourage her to make most of the decisions.

Using rewards or making deals can be a useful way to encourage her to put effort into being brave or trying out new things. For example, if she tries a new activity for a couple of weeks, you take her on a trip at the weekend, and so on.

Finally, getting through this challenging period will require a lot of patience on your part. The goal is to keep in there as a parent and remain as positive as possible.

Seek further support from the school or mental health services if you need extra support or guidance. You might find it useful to attend a parenting course for teenagers.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. His new book, Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children: A practical guide to nurturing resilience, self-esteem and emotional well-being, is now available. See solutiontalk.ie for details.