My bubbly 13-year-old daughter is being excluded at school
We are wondering if we should consider moving her to a smaller school
She is still in great form at home but gets teary when discussing school breaks and so on. Photograph: iStock
Question: I was wondering if you could give me a bit of advice about my 13-year-old daughter, who is in first year in secondary school. She is doing so well academically, but is struggling socially, which is a concern. She is in a very large all-girls secondary school.
She knew one girl starting and told me in November that she was being left out of the group they had hooked up with. They were quite nasty to her – spreading rumours and physically excluding her from the group. I encouraged her to try and hang out with girls she liked more, and she tried this and seemed to be getting on with three other girls.
However, one of the three (who my daughter was iffy about from the beginning) does not seem to like my daughter, and when she is about the other two won’t talk to her either. She has joined school activities and has activities outside of school, which she loves. She has always been so social, happy and bubbly, and still is, so it is a surprise to us all that she is struggling.
Her three friends from primary school went to another local secondary school and are very settled and don’t have any of the stories of nastiness and exclusion. We are wondering if our daughter just can’t click with the girls in her class and if we should consider moving her to this smaller school. Honestly, we aren’t being overprotective of her or in denial that we might he missing something about her behaviour, because everyone is equally surprised.
Interestingly, I’ve heard from the teachers that the students in her year are particularly challenging – one teacher let slip that it was one of the most difficult cohorts of first years she has dealt with.
I guess I’m desperate for advice as to whether we should move her next year. My gut is to move her. I have wondered if she would be the same in this other school, but I really don’t think so. Her happiness is obviously important, and we don’t want her lovely, bubbly personality to become lost if this gets the better of her.
She is still in great form at home but gets teary when discussing school breaks and so on.
Answer: Your dilemma is unfortunately common. Fitting in, finding your niche and forming friendships can be a challenge for many children in the first years of secondary school. This can be particularly difficult for children who start schools without knowing other children, although it can affect any child as friendships in primary school can quickly change in the new structure of secondary school and under the pressures of adolescence. In secondary schools there can be a tribe mentality as the children sort themselves out into groups, working out who is “in” and who is “out”.
Unfortunately this can lead to exclusion and isolation for children who are left on the outside. In my clinical experience these problems can be particularly pronounced in girls’ schools where being in a friendship group becomes a central aspect to identity.
Helping your daughter in her school
It sounds as if you have done a lot already to try and help your daughter. You have supported her to join school activities and to get involved. You have helped her plan how she might approach potential friends and groups in the class but unfortunately this has not worked out for her and she has not been treated well. Have you contacted the school to see if they can help? The year head and teachers have a responsibility to help your daughter settle and to promote a culture of inclusion and positive friendships in the school (and to address any examples of nastiness or exclusion).
However, I am aware that it requires skilled intervention on the part of the school to make things better. I was involved in a similar case where the year head publicly spoke to some girls who were identified as potentially excluding another girl, but this this led to the girl who was struggling feeling more isolated, albeit in a much more subtle way. Often indirect approaches work better, such as supporting the girls in private, or doing whole school input on friendship and relationships, or increasing the number of lunchtime activities to provide opportunities for friendships to be formed and so on.
Weighing up the decision to change school
Making a good decision is always about weighing up the other options you have in front of you. You can either continue to support her in the current school or consider moving her to the new school. Moving is not without risks, but you are fortunate that you seem to have a good alternative school that is smaller and where she has some existing friends. Was there a particular reason why you did not opt for this school in the first place? I would suggest you find out more about the option of moving your daughter and to explore how it might work in practice. Have you met with the new school staff and explained your situation? Have they explained how they might help your daughter in settling after a move? You can also explore the option of staying in the current school and supporting your daughter to make things better for herself (and planning with the school staff around this).
It is, of course, your judgment call as a family whether moving is the right decision, and it is one you should take time to think through. I would suggest also you talk it all through with your daughter and help her weigh up the options. At 13, it is really important to help her feel involved and empowered in whatever decisions are made. It is also important to help her have a good narrative as to why she is making the decision.
For example, you don’t want her to think that the move is about her having “failed” in the last school, but rather about a positive move to a smaller school that will meet her needs better.
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 for Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie for details of courses and articles