What were your first days at high school like? I remember hooking up with a small group of boys in the first half hour and spending the next term locked into intense heads-down, wandering about, never daring to look up.
My daughter changed overnight from a tomboy who would challenge any boy at rugby or breakdancing to an Olympically competitive fashionista, in the midst of a swarm of girls. At the weekend she’d be scouring the racks of Topshop for the completely different-but-almost-identical outfit to that of her peers.
I have met children who, within weeks, could describe the social categorisation at their schools – emos, skaters, geeks, hippies, psychos… – with the refinement of sociologists studying class-bound Victorian Britain, or the caste system of the Indian sub-continent.
Going to high school from primary school, where everybody seemed to know who you were and what you were like, it is vital to work out where you belong – and fast. Because it might seem – in that city-like flow of people – that no-one knows who you are. And that can include you.
This mix of “who am I?” and “where do I belong?” is a potent issue for children as they move into adolescence. To manage both questions is no easy manoeuvre. Your family, however great they are, are unlikely to be of much use. How can they possibly understand you? These dilemmas have never happened to anyone else ever, and anyway, you don’t want to be like them.
How much harder it is for children who do not have a supportive family to reject!
Calum came to Place2Be during his first year at high school. He was not fitting in with any group. This was not for lack of trying. He took up a new identity nearly every week in his desperate attempt to join a group – any group.
Everybody read the desperation and steered clear.
Calum had been adopted as a baby. He had never found out much about his biological parents; his adoptive family had decided not to tell. Home life relationships were strained and distant, and Calum did not seem to be able to relate to either of his parents. He was an only child who had never been encouraged to bring friends home.
He seemed much younger than his years, unsure what he was meant to be doing when he came to the sessions. He was not good at articulating his situation – only that he was lonely.
In fact, he wanted to play – first with art materials, then with games that we have in the Place2Be room. He felt more like a seven year old than someone in their first year of high school.
While most eleven year olds hurtle towards grown-upness and independence, some get left behind. Coupled with his family history, Calum needed more time – to learn new protocols, to grow into himself, to achieve some confidence.
A safe non-judgemental space – away from the competitiveness in class and vying for position in the playground – provided that opportunity.
And once he had that, Calum began to settle down. It was not dramatic – only that he stopped trying to be someone else in order to fit in. He accepted that in this setting he was a slow starter.
As he relaxed, so like-minded children gravitated towards him. It turned out there were quite a few children like Calum, he was pleased to learn.
l Jonathan Wood, Place2Be National Manager for Scotland. Place2Be is the UK’s leading provider of school-based emotional and mental health services, working in over 280 primary and secondary schools across the UK.
Place2Be is one of the Heads Together partner charities. Heads Together is a campaign being spearheaded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, which aims to change the conversation on mental health from fear and shame to confidence and support. For advice on helping children to cope with big changes, visit headstogether.org.uk