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Starting high school: Why the first 3 months are so important and can impact on future alcohol and other drug use

I still remember my first day of high school – it was horrible! I had attended a state primary school and my parents, like many others, made the decision to move me to the private system for my secondary schooling. It was a major financial sacrifice for my parents back then and they did it for all the right reasons, but it was tough! Apart from the move from a co-ed environment to a boys-only school being difficult (sport certainly wasn’t my thing!), it was made even harder because I knew absolutely no-one. Many of the boys had come from ‘feeder’ primary schools and entered the year with established friendships – I was completely alone! I wouldn’t wish my first few years at high school on anyone …

It’s important to acknowledge that it is now rare for children to be just thrown into high school and left to fend for themselves, with most schools developing and implementing programs to ensure that no-one ‘slips through the cracks’ during this difficult time. But it’s also vital that parents realize that they play a crucial role as well and that those first three months of secondary school are incredibly important …

Now you may be wondering how I’ve made the leap from the shift between primary and secondary schools to future alcohol and other drug use. Well, apart from anything else, it’s all about making sure our kids are resilient and the evidence clearly shows that this transition period plays a key role in building (or potentially damaging) resilience.

Essentially, resilience is the ‘ability to bounce back’, i.e., the capacity to overcome adversity and obstacles. We know that it is important to try to make our young people as resilient as possible, hopefully protecting them against the stresses and adverse situations that they will encounter as they go through life. We can’t ‘inoculate’ them against possible problems (such as drug use or bullying) but if we can help them ‘bounce back’ should things go wrong, we are at least arming them in the best way possible.

The Australian guru in this area is Andrew Fuller and he truly is the ‘go-to’ person in this area. Much of what I’m going to say next is based on his work and if you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of decades and don’t know anything about him, I encourage you to take a look at his website (andrewfuller.com.au) and all the free material he makes available. Andrew has written that he believes that the transition between primary and secondary school is critical for building resilience in students. From a positive perspective, starting high school offers young people “an opportunity to re-invent or consolidate how they see themselves”. However, for others, changing schools (or even moving from primary to secondary within the same school) can be a stressful event and has been linked to a lowering in self-esteem and an increase in psychological distress should it not run smoothly.

The good news for parents is that if students have had a smooth transition, by Year 10 they have higher levels of school attendance, better academic results, low behavioural problems and lower rates of substance abuse. And there’s the link to alcohol and other drugs – positive transition, the lower the risk of future problems in that area! So why is this the case and what can parents do to help ensure their child has a positive experience?

Firstly, even though we’re not quite at the ‘middle adolescence’ stage (that wonderful Year 9 group that I often talk about) parents need to remember, that even at this age, their child is growing up. They may not be as obvious at this age, but children are starting to go through physical and emotional changes, including a burst of hormones, particularly in the girls; the next stage of brain development begins; and although it’s early in the piece, they are starting to try and create their own identity, with peers starting to become more influential than they once were.

Most importantly though this transition period requires all students (whether they’re new to the school or not) to establish new peer groups. A significant number of new students enter the year group and there is always (and I mean always!) a shift in the group dynamics. Amongst the ‘newbies’ there will be those that almost everyone will automatically gravitate towards, some will have pre-existing issues and problems, while there will be others who are strong academically or have athletic abilities. As these children are ‘added to the mix’, everyone is affected in some way. Established friendship groups from primary school will change. One new child added to a year group can have a ripple effect, in the first year of high school there will be a large intake – things will inevitably shift and this can be extremely hard for young people …

OK – so it’s a tough time and potentially stressful – I’m pretty sure that most parents get that. What is a worry though is just how quickly things can go wrong at this time. In 2001, Andrew wrote a paper called ‘Creating resilient learners’ and there’s a paragraph in it that I often quote to parents with children about to move into high school:

“I suspect we have no more than three months from the commencement of secondary school, and perhaps much less time, before a peer group develops negative attitudes towards learning.”

What he is saying here is that those first months of high school have the very real potential to affect your child for the rest of their life. Frighteningly, I’ve heard Andrew say that it’s more likely to really be the first six weeks that make the difference! What they will all be struggling to do during this period is to gain the acceptance of their peers, i.e., they want to find a friend or a friendship group. In his paper, Andrew wrote:

“The power of conformity and the strength of the desire to fit in (at almost any cost) … mean that many young people choose peer acceptance over educational success.”

In addition to finding friends, young people will also try to establish their place in the year group (or their established friendship group that may have been affected by new students). As they try, many will likely experience rejection to some degree. Not everyone is going to be popular and this can be difficult for anyone, let alone a young person entering adolescence who is beginning to struggle with a range of physical and emotional changes. The resulting self-doubt, lowered self-esteem and overall distress has been shown to adversely impact future resilience if they are not supported during this time.

In addition, as they bounce from group to group, trying to find which one will accept them and where they actually fit, there is the potential for them to find themselves being accepted by a peer group that could end up being problematic. Remember what Andrew said – your child needs friends and a friendship group “(at almost any cost)” – this is a time when you could find them ‘falling in with the wrong crowd’. Even though you have worked hard to instil your values and attitudes in your child, it can all come undone during this very short period of time.

So what can parents do to support their child at this time and, in doing so, help build their resilience? And is there any way that you can ensure that they don’t find themselves in a potentially problematic peer group? There are no certainties here, but here are a few simple things that any parent of a first year high school student should try to do over the next month or so:
  • keep talking to your child and show an interest – they may not want to tell you everything that is happening but keep asking the questions. High school is so different from primary school – they now have multiple teachers, they may be getting to school a different way and they’re meeting many new people – show an interest in all of it. But know when to stop – don’t be a nag! If they don’t want to tell you more, don’t push it!
  • be involved – ask any high school teacher and they will tell you that they rarely see a parent unless something goes wrong. Parents need to be actively and respectfully involved with what is happening during this transition period. Don’t embarrass your son or daughter and show up halfway during an English lesson but make an effort and attend any parent sessions the school puts on. Try to make a time to see their Year Coordinator to introduce yourself and see how things are progressing, particularly if you have any concerns
  • meet their new friends – if they start talking about new friends, encourage your child to invite them to your home so you can meet them. This shouldn’t be a ‘vetting period’ but rather a simple but effective way of staying connected and being more aware of what is happening in your child’s life
  • meet their new friends’ parents – meet the friends, then meet their parents. You can tell so much about a child by having a brief chat to their Mum or Dad. If they seem to have similar values as you, grab them and hold them tight – they’re going to be useful in the future. If they don’t, be prepared, you’re most probably going to have work twice as hard!
  • don’t be afraid to express your concern if you’re worried about who they’re hanging out with – if you don’t feel comfortable with their friends, let them know. This has to be handled extremely carefully and respectfully but, if it doesn’t feel right, it most probably isn’t and you need to let your son or daughter know how you feel. Trying to ban your child from seeing certain people is not going to be helpful, particularly during this transition period, but talking through your concerns and working through possible solutions is important
And most importantly, if you don’t do this already, start working on it today – find a special activity for you and your child to do at least once a week. 

We know that the quality of the parent-child relationship is so important in building resilience. Having an activity that involves a time when it’s just you and your child ‘connecting’, particularly just before they enter their teens can be so helpful in maintaining a strong and positive relationship.

If your child has just started high school, it can be very exciting for them but also very stressful. If they’re having trouble fitting in and finding friends, or they’re having problems with their old friends, they may find it difficult to talk to you about it. There’s a great deal more shame associated with not being popular today, mainly due to the role social media plays in many of their lives. Having a regular time to catch up and chat about what you’re doing and what’s happening with them can make those difficult conversations a little easier.

Sadly, many parents think that an activity like this has to take a great deal of time and as a result they don’t make the effort. In fact, if you spend just 5 minutes a week of real quality time with your child it can work wonders. On the other hand, having an hour of ‘Dad-time’ with both of you on your phone for half of it won’t work – you might as well not do it! The key to finding the right activity is that it has to be fun for both of you, distraction free (no electronic devices that can interrupt you) and something neither of you does with anyone else!

Fuller, A. (2001). Creating resilient learners. Learning Matters 6, 22-25.

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