It's every teen's worst nightmare: their parents announce they're moving. New town, new friends, and last but not least, new school. While transitions like this can be tough at any age, for teenagers -- with the premium they place on friendships and their status among their peers -- it can seem like the end of the world is at hand. Doors slam, "I hate you"s are uttered, and many parents might start to worry whether moving schools will send their teen into a downward spiral that'll drain their self-esteem, grades, prom date prospects, and even alter their lifelong success and happiness.
We won't sugarcoat it: Moving schools is indeed tough on teens.
"Even the changes in logistics, like teachers, homework, and classes, can increase stress in the child and have a negative effect on grades," says Mark Loewen, a parent consultant in Richmond, Virginia. "More importantly, during this time, teenagers are learning valuable lessons about friendship and their place in the world. Peers play a large part in how these previously mentioned factors are defined. So a rupture in relationships can present extra challenges for any teen."
The good news? Give it time, and most teens adjust fine -- provided you stay put after that point. "But a study reported by the Journal of Social and Personality Psychology found that the more times people moved as kids, the more likely they reported lower well-being and life satisfaction as adults," says Frank Sileo, PhD, a psychologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and executive director of the Center for Psychological Enhancement. "Serial movers reported fewer quality social relationships."
Moving at a time that's a normal transition for most kids can also soften the blow because your teen has plenty of company. "Changing schools at times that are common -- like the beginning of middle or high school -- makes it slightly easier than if the transitions occur mid-year or in the middle of high school," says Diane Lang, a counseling educator and author of the parenting book Baby Steps.
How you involve your teen in this life change can make a big difference to how they well they adjust. Here's some advice to smooth the transition:
1. Tell your teen as soon as possible. "Don't put off telling your child about the change to avoid stressing him out," says Loewen. "Having time to process the information will help your teen to make peace with the decision. It also allows him to say good-bye to friends and teachers."
2. Hear their worst fears. Whatever you do, don't completely blow off their concerns. "Telling teens 'It's not a big deal' will result in frustration and anger because, to them, it is a HUGE deal," says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of Better Than Perfect. Instead, ask them to explain what they're most afraid will happen at the new school. "It's usually the case that children who don't want to change schools create worst possible scenario events to protest the forced change and justify their resistance," says Jeanette Raymond, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles. So hear them out, and offer some reality checks.
3. Stage a sendoff celebration. To help bring closure for your teen, "ask them if they want to have a going-away party or weekend get-together with their close friends," says Sileo. Saying good-bye is never easy, but turning it into an actual event can help.
4. Give your teen as much decision-making power as possible. Since your kid may feel as if he has no say about this move, it can help to grant them some modicum of control where you can. "There may be small decisions that the teen can make, like what classes to take," says Loewen. "Include them in visiting the school beforehand and taking a tour."
5. Forge new friendships before school starts. "Try to make connections with the new school and classmates prior to the first day of school," suggests Kelly Tonelli, PsyD a psychologist in Irvine, California. "It's always to start the first day when you know a couple of people already."
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6. Help your child stay in touch with old friends, too. Just because your child has moved doesn't mean his old friends no longer matter. "Facilitate the maintenance of relationships with friends from former school with face-to-face visits, Facebook, texts, and phone calls," says Tonelli. In other words, this may be one time to loosen those restrictions on phone and screen time if their goal is to stay in touch with pals.
7. Let your child vent. "When your teen is expressing negative comments about the new school, don't rush to present countering arguments," advises Loewen. "Your child is not being logical; they are expressing their emotions. Spend some time allowing them to tell you everything they don't like about the new school."
Ask your teen about the differences between the old school and the new school. What do they like better, what do they not like as much? "Don't immediately offer solutions," says Loewen. "Rather, allow your child to process his or her experience. This will help them resolve inner conflict and move forward to adapting to the new school."
Was moving schools traumatic for your teenager?
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