My daughter can’t fit in with peers in school
She is so down and desperately wants friends
It is no surprise that there is a peaking of stress, adjustment and mental-health problems for teens in the first years of secondary school. Photograph: iStock
I don’t know where else to turn to for advice. My daughter has started secondary school and is not fitting in with her peers. She finds it hard to talk in a group and gets on better with one-on-one. I presume when she is with this group of girls they think she is odd. She is so, so down and says she wants to be home-schooled. She doesn’t need friends, but she desperately wants them. She says things like “what’s the point anymore”, which scares me. I don’t know what to do.
The transition from primary to secondary school brings many changes and challenges to the lives of children. We all know about the potential stresses of major adult life events, such as moving house, changing job or having a baby, but may be less aware of the potential stresses for children moving into secondary school.
Take a moment to think what they have to contend with.
They have the increased academic pressure of multiple subjects and a busy timetable; homework pressures increase significantly; they have to deal with multiple teachers and being part of a much bigger and less individual system; they have the social pressures of trying to fit in with a new social group and making friends.
In addition, these changes come at the beginning of their adolescence when they are experiencing heightened emotions, are questioning the world and how they fit in as well as struggling to find their niche.
It is no surprise that there is a peaking of stress, adjustment and mental-health problems for teens in the first years of secondary school – this is a time when many need a lot of emotional support and help.
Acknowledging the challenges with your daughter
In helping your daughter, the first thing you can do is acknowledge and normalise the challenges she might be going through. For example, you might say: “The first year in secondary school can be really difficult . . . it can be hard to fit in and it takes time to find the right bunch of friends”. Many children who are struggling in school can feel like they are the ‘only one’ and that ‘there must be something wrong with them’ as they are not coping as well. It is important to set her mind right on this – “lots of people struggle with what you are going through – though it might appear that everyone is coping – lots of the other girls at school are worried about the same issues as you”.
Listening to your daughter
As a parent, it can be hard to listen to your child in distress. However, it is important to realise it much better that she is expressing her feelings and worries to you, rather than trying to silently cope (which is much more worrying). Also, teenagers can experience a rollercoaster of intense emotions and they need supportive adults to listen. The key is to not panic when she tells you ‘worrying’ things and instead to be empathic and gently listen. For example you might say: “It is understandable that you are upset – it is not fair to be left out. I’m glad you have told me how you are feeling.”
As you say you are understandably “scared” when she says things like she does not “see the point anymore”. In those instances, it is important to continue to listen and encourage her to tell you more – “when you say you don’t see the point, what do you mean?” This will give you a sense of her level of distress and what sort of support she might need. If you are worried she has become hopeless and that she might harm herself, then do immediately seek support (see below). However, in most instances, such declarations are an indication of her upset about the situation and by you listening she is likely to feel relief as she gets things off her chest.
Help your daughter problem-solve
It is important to empower your daughter to take action to sort out the problems that are bothering her. If she finds it hard to fit in with one peer group, perhaps there are other girls or boys in the class who might be more suitable friends. Rather than seeking approval from an ‘in crowd’, encourage her to seek out friendships with other children who might be more similar to her and who are equally finding it hard to fit in in the first year of a new school. You can also encourage these friendships by facilitating her inviting them over to your house or even by making informal contact with their parents. In addition, you can coach your daughter in how to deal with classroom or friendship challenges perhaps by not spending time with the children she feels ‘judged by’ and/ or talking to other children, getting involved in other school activities and informing the teachers as appropriate.
Seek extra support
If you remain concerned about your daughter, do seek extra support. The school should be well-used to dealing with children in your daughter’s situation. The year head should be able to advise (and take some supportive action within the school to help your daughter). The school may have a counsellor who could meet with her to support her or make a referral to an appropriate service. In addition, you should also consider other mental-health services such as primary care or a local youth-counselling or family-support service (your GP should be able to advise you).
Encourage your daughter to get involved in activities/ hobbies she enjoys and is good at, both in school and at home. Consider lots of different things such as sport, drama, scouts, music and anything that could be ‘her thing’. Engaging in positive interests will provide her with a respite from the stress she is experiencing as well as a source of finding friends who have shared interests.
Remember also to retain a sense of perspective as you go forward. Though your daughter is having a hard time at the moment, things can improve relatively quickly as she settles into her first year. One or two good friendships and one or two fun activities she enjoys would make all the difference.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will deliver an evening parenting seminar on Building Children’s Self-Esteem on Tuesday, November 28th, at the Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Dublin. See www.solutiontalk.ie for details