As the summer winds down, parents begin to prepare for the new school year by buying school supplies, arranging after school care, and meeting with school staff. One more item that should be on the “to do” list is talking with their children about transition.
They say that “the only thing permanent in life is change.” That may be true, but even though change is a regular part of life, it doesn’t come easily – especially for teens and tweens.
Studies show that even adolescents who haven’t tried drugs or alcohol are more likely to start during times of transition in order to cope with stress. But don’t worry – while change is a part of life, risky behavior like drug and alcohol use doesn’t have to be. Here are a few thoughts you might put into practice to help keep your child healthy – and even happy! – during transition periods.
Even when life events or transitions are typical and expected – starting puberty or moving up a grade — those times may feel like a big deal to your tween or teen (and to parents, as well). It’s the newness, the anticipation and the fear of the unknown that causes anxiety and stress. And, certainly, some transitions can be particularly tough.
Parenting is all about clearing these hurdles of transition. Each step along the way — first tooth, first day of kindergarten, first time behind the wheel — we celebrate our child’s new milestone, but deep down, a part of us is heartbroken as a chapter of our child’s life comes to an end.
“Periods of transition can be hard for anyone — children and adults alike,” explains Jill Longshore, director of Treatment Services at Westview. “And what often happens during periods of transition is anxiety and stress levels go up, which may make a person more at-risk for alcohol and substance misuse.”
Going back to school, in itself, can be a transition. An even greater transition a child goes through is the advance from elementary school to middle school or from middle school to high school. Your child has just gone from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a big pond. “Cool” older kids can be intimidating and may even purposely try to make younger students feel unwelcome. Freshmen boys tend to have a particularly hard time with this transition because the girls in their grade want to date juniors and seniors – and they ignore all the boys their own age. Here are the top five reasons teens use drugs during transitions:
• To combat loneliness, low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression.
• To mentally “check out” of family issues or school trouble.
• To ease discomfort in an unfamiliar situation.
• To look cool or change their image/reputation.
• To fit in with a desired group of friends.
So what can parents do to help our kids successfully handle big life changes like going back to school, moving to a new town and puberty? In a nutshell, the answer is maintain a dialogue.
“When your children are in a transition time, talk to them about it,” says Longshore. “Try saying: ‘You’ve started a new school or school year. I know when I was your age, it was a little scary. How are you feeling?’”
“Let them know that their anxieties are normal. Let them know that you understand it, and afterward ask, ‘How was it for you? What are some of the good things you experienced? Oftentimes, I suggest parents ask their children, ‘What was the best part of your day?’ to open dialogue and increase their focus on positive aspects of their lives.’”
Remember that the conversation must be a two-way street. Listen to your child. Try not to interrupt with your running commentary. If you’re thrown off guard by something your child says, say you’ll get back to him/her. Then, talk it through with a spouse or friend, and readdress the topic with your child when the time is right.
Also, don’t expect kids to open up without some encouragement or to always show what they are feeling. Some children never seem stressed about academics – it appears to come easy to them. If you investigate, though, you may be surprised to hear that it is not the case. These children may be stressed but don’t show it like other kids do. This means it’s important to check in with kids and probe a bit. Things are not always what they seem.
Parents must be actively involved in helping their children clear the hurdles of transition, and communication is the key to the process.
Hugh Gray is the executive director at Westview Behavioral Health Services and can be reached at 803-276-5690.