‘My son says he feels of no value in secondary school’
Ask the expert: ‘He told me he hides in the locker room in school for some breaks’
My 13-year-old son says he has not made friends in school with anyone. Photograph: iStock
Question: I am wondering if you can help me. We have a 13-year-old son who started secondary school in September. He has absolutely no confidence in himself. Last night, he told me he hides in the locker room in school for some breaks as he hasn’t the confidence to go out and sit with his classmates. He said nothing about this before and was crying and upset when he finally told me.
At home he is a very kind boy, though he has always been quiet in company. Lots of his friends from primary school started in other secondary schools and the ones that are there seem to be in different classes. He says he has not made friends in school with anyone and what really upset me was when he said he feels of “no value”, in school.
I feel really upset for him. How can I help him?
Answer: The first thing that I would say to you is that it is great that he has confided in you about his distress in school. It sounds like he was bottling up his feelings for a while, so it is good that he has got them off his chest and told you what is going on. He will likely feel great relief as a result of telling you. A problem shared is definitely a problem halved so, though it is hard to hear, I would see it as a breakthrough that he has finally told you.
Often, children avoid telling their parents when they have problems in case they upset them or burden them, so it is important to reassure him that you want to hear the problems he is experiencing and that you are glad he has told you what is going on because you are there to help him.
Help your son to think through what to do next
Now that your son has told you what is going on, the next step is to help him solve his problem and decide what to do. Don’t rush in with giving advice or solutions. The goal is to listen carefully and help him decide what he can do for himself. It can help to put things in perspective for him. When starting secondary school lots of children struggle to find friends and fit in. It is usually a period of great change and it takes a period of time for everyone to settle.
Help him identify potential friends
It is particularly hard for children to start secondary school when many of their previous classmates and friends have started in other schools, and they are likely to initially feel lonely. They can easily feel isolated from the previously formed groups who know each other and it can be hard to break in.
Usually, the best approach is to try to identify other children in the school who are in the same boat as him. In first year in secondary school there are usually a few children who are starting new like your son without a pre-existing social group – and most of these children are open and keen to make friends (like your son might be).
Ask your son questions about who is in his class, who he might have something in common with and who he might talk to. While you can’t intervene as a parent of a teenager, you can offer practical supports that might help him make friends such as being open to potential friends coming to the home, taking them to and from events, supporting him to take part in extra-curricular activities etc.
Encourage your son to take part in extra-curricular activities
Often the best place to make friends is by taking part in extra-curricular activities and particularly ones that your son really likes and is good at. In such activities he is likely to have more confidence and to be more social, and in these contexts he is more likely to chat and make friends.
Explore with your son what activities there are in the school that he could take part in that will help. Sometimes there are lunchtime activities that he could get involved in which will help him manage the break time.
Consider contacting the school
Do consider having a quiet word with his year head or the school counsellor. The school staff are likely to be used to children who are finding the first year hard from a social/confidence point of view and may have helpful suggestions as to how he can manage.
There may be supports they could put in place (such as setting up some break-time activities) that don’t draw any attention to your son but help him manage and structure the day. If things continue to be difficult for him, they may be able to offer him some direct support such as counselling if it is helpful.
Finally, it is important to remember things are likely to settle over the course of the year. Quieter and more introverted kids like your son might take a bit longer to make friends, but often make more enduring friendships once they do.
– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He has published 14 books, including ‘Positive Parenting: Bringing up responsible, well-behaved and happy children’. He will deliver a number of parenting workshops in Dublin, Cork and Galway in October and November. See solutiontalk.ie for details