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Is your child anxious about starting secondary school?

The transition to secondary school is a challenging time – the key to an easy passage is building your child’s mental fitness

Mental fitness is about seeing the mind as a muscle. This can build resilience. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The transition to secondary school will be faced by many young people across the country in the coming weeks. And while being exposed to the new experiences, new friendships and broader ideas that this move will bring is extremely positive for young people, facing into any major change can be difficult.

From adjusting to new subjects, new teachers and new classmates to the sudden increase in academic pressure; it can sometimes cause challenge. That is why I have been talking with 6th-class students about the importance of mental fitness. Mental fitness builds resilience.

Mental fitness is about seeing the mind as a muscle. Once a young person begins to see their mind as a muscle, they become aware of the power they possess to train that muscle to work in their favour, if times get tough.

Oh no, I’m not capable of making friends and will be left on my own

How a young person perceives or interprets an event is an example of activity in their mind that can be influenced by their level of mental fitness. Take a young person who might find it hard in the first week of secondary school to make new friends. If they tend to be pessimistic or if they have experienced difficulties with peers in the past, they could process that experience as “Oh no, I’m not capable of making friends and will be left on my own.”

That thinking could lead them to panic or feel hopeless about the social aspect of school and while that way of interpreting the event can seem to happen automatically in the mind, they can learn to interpret it another way.

Take the same young person who sees their mind as a muscle. They will know that they can train their mind to pause, to take time to tune in to how they are feeling, to then make a choice about how they wish to interpret the experience, knowing that their interpretation will impact greatly on how they feel. They can then choose to interpret the experience differently, thinking instead, “Making friends might take a bit of time, but I’m not going to panic. I can join a school team or I can talk to someone who can help me come up with other ideas.” This thinking can lead them to feel more hopeful.

This working out of identity that happens during adolescence means that young people often tune into what others, particularly their peers, may think of them

When it comes to young people starting secondary school, it is worth noting that they are at a very particular stage of psychological development. Renowned theorist Erik Erikson refers to this stage of development as the stage of “identity formation”. This working out of identity that happens during adolescence means that young people often tune into what others, particularly their peers, may think of them. And so, as secondary school begins, it can coincide with an increase in the amount of time young people spend engaging with social media.

This can ameliorate the identity formation process as young people take the opportunity to get masses of feedback from others. Because the beginning of secondary school is happening at such an important point in a young person’s psychological development, focus needs to be given to how they are managing and taking care of their minds.

Five ways to help your child make the transition

1: Encourage the idea of viewing the mind as a muscle. Explain that if they develop the habit of tuning into their thoughts and how they are interpreting events, they can gain more control of how they feel. If negative, self-critical thoughts, such as “I’m not able for this academic work” or “I’m letting people down with these results”, are left unchallenged, such thoughts can become toxic to self-esteem can turn into facts in a young person’s mind, which is further damaging to their self-worth – it needs to be pointed out that the way they think about something will directly affect how they feel about that issue.

2: Before day one arrives, set a specific time aside to talk about their expectations for secondary school. Whether they feel excitement or dread, it is important that they know that it’s okay if it takes the whole of first year to settle in. Some young people expect to settle right away and when it doesn’t happen quickly, they can feel anxiety or frustration. Even if they are excited and not at all stressed about the prospect of the change, validate those feelings but still be clear that it’s okay if it takes a while to settle in. Say it is that way for many. Talk to them about how it’s going once they begin. As expectations can often be at the root of stress and anxiety, it is a conversation well worth having.

3: Encourage a small amount of mindfulness practice from the time they start secondary school. Even five minutes in the morning spent focusing on their breath can increase mental fitness and you can join in too as a gesture of support.

4: Increase their level of emotional awareness by asking them to check in with themselves about how they are feeling. Explain how being aware of how they are feeling will help them if they begin to feel overwhelmed. Ensure they understand that all emotions come and go, even if they feel something intensely (such as worry or stress); all emotion is okay and can be talked (with you) about.

5: Ask your child to make a list of all the things that might be good about secondary school as a way to focus on the positive aspects of the transition. Remind them not just of the opportunities but it is their level of effort that will matter, more than any results.

Anne McCormack is a psychotherapist and author of ‘Keeping Your Child Safe’ on Social Media: Five Easy Steps. @MentalFitnessXX