Our 12-year-old is torn about which school to go to
She has become really upset and overwhelmed. Hormones are not helping matters
Should we just make the decision for her and tell her if it doesn’t work out she can lay all the blame on us? Photograph: iStock
Question: We looked at two nearby schools for our 12-year-old daughter for secondary school. She really liked the first and would have chosen it but unfortunately we did not get a place, although some of her friends did. She happily went with the second choice, where friends are also going, including one close friend.
We’ve just got a late offer for the first-choice school, which would strongly be mine and her father’s choice. We think it is a better fit for her and she would like it and be happy there.
When we got the offer we took the approach of saying to her that this had happened and we would all think about it, and talk about it, and there was no rush. However, she has become really upset and overwhelmed. Hormones are not helping matters. She says she doesn’t want to disappoint us but in her head she had committed to the second school and worries about “abandoning” her close friend. It’s very tough to see her so upset, yet we feel the first school is the best one.
Should we just make the decision for her and tell her if it doesn’t work out she can lay all the blame on us?
Answer: The decision about which secondary school to go to is a big decision in the life of any 12-year-old. In fact it is likely to feel like the biggest decision they have yet made in their life so far. In addition, this decision comes at a time when they are entering adolescence and able to think more long term, full of hormones and feeling emotions much more intensely. Your daughter is likely to be acutely aware of the pros and cons of schools, as well as the choices and losses about friendships. This can feel like a lot of pressure.
Your question also raises the issue as to who should actually should make the secondary school decision – should the child decide or should it be the parents? And how do you resolve a dispute if there is one? Legally, the answer is straightforward – the parents are responsible for making the decision. However, from a child-centred psychological perspective, it is more complex. These big life decisions are best made in consultation with children and should take into account their needs and wishes. In addition, the goal of parenting is to prepare children to make their own life decisions, so the ideal is to empower children to make good decisions as early as possible in their lives.
However, children develop differently at different ages – some are ready to take responsibility for big decisions at younger ages and others are not and need their parents to decide. Tragically, I see many children who have to make long term decisions which are not ready to make. For example, many parents let children decide how much contact to have with a parent in the case of parental separation (which has big implications for this relationship in the long term), when it is better for the child if the parents work hard to reach an agreement and decide together.
Appreciate the stress of making a decision
So how do you help your own daughter in your own situation? Firstly it is important to acknowledge with your daughter the stress of making this decision. She has the added complication of having to adjust her expectations – a decision had been made and her plans clear for one school and now she has to adjust. Appreciate how hard it must be to consider changing at this time, after being committed to another school. Also, listen and acknowledge her worries about letting her friend down. Giving her time and space to express her feelings is really important. Rushing a decision only adds to the pressure.
Say that it is your responsibility to make the decision
To relieve her of the burden of the decision, say you, her parents, will make the final decision. Say you will take plenty of time to listen and discuss the issues. Set a date in the near future as to when you have to decide. Before that time you want to know what she thinks, feels and wants, but you will make the final decision. Remind her that you love her and only want what is best for her. This is likely to provide her with some relief and space to think.
Explore the issues with her
Take time to unpack her worries and concerns, such as “letting her friend down”. Praise her for her kindness and concern and ask questions to tease out the underlying issues. Does her friend have other children she is going with to the original school? How could she still stay friends with her? (Often it is good to have a friend outside your school.) Be prepared also to share your views and explain to her why you think they are in her “best interest”. Doing up a list of pros and cons with her might be also helpful so you can make notes and review these later. Taking a break from discussions and “sleeping on” the question are also good ideas.
With a bit of time and patience, it is likely that you reach a consensus and make a choice that your daughter agrees with. Though it feel challenging and emotional at the moment for your daughter, making this big decision could also be the making of her and build her confidence and sense of responsibility.
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie