Son Is Unhappy at New School

When school is hurting a child's self-esteem, it's time to look for outside activities or groups he could join.
We have recently moved to a new city. My son is in the eighth grade. Before we moved, he had a great group of friends that he'd been with since early grade school -- he'd known his best friend since they were 18-months-old! We gave him the option of living with his biological dad in the city we were from. He considered this for a couple of weeks and then decided to move with us. We were relieved! His biological dad left when our son was just four years old.

In our new city, my son hates school. Hate is a strong word, and so are the feelings he has. I have talked with him extensively. He says that he feels all alone. He tries to make new friends, and they desert him. He has become very depressed and withdrawn. He is a really good kid. Although he is one that doesn't extend himself, once others get to know him, they adore him. He is considerate, has a quick wit, and is in general a good kid. His STAR (state competency tests) have always been in the 80-90 percentile. Now he is barely getting C's and D's. He and I have talked to his counselor, to no avail. She has no plan to help him out in this, other than "stick with it, time will heal." One of the problems is that the school (and all the schools in this area) is grossly overcrowded. This is true throughout the district. I am seeing my son change in a very sad way due to puberty and his new situation. What do I do to help him? I will not stand by and say "time will heal all." My son has a good head on his shoulders, and we have a very good family relationship, but I have heard too many stories of "He was such a quiet kid, keeping to himself. Never thought anything like this would happen!" Now, I am not saying that I will find my son on top of a tower some day, but I know major things are going on with his self-esteem. What do I do? I hurt so badly for him.

All children (and adults) have challenges in their lives that put them "at-risk," and you are right on target with your concern about your son. Changing schools and especially moving to a large school, can be a risk factor for adolescents, but parents and schools can help make the transition easier. Like you, I am disappointed that his counselor has no plan. May I suggest that your son or you ask around to learn if one of the other counselors is more kid-friendly? Students can go to any counselor in a school, not to just the assigned counselor. If so, talk with that counselor about the situation. Another resource might be one of the teachers that your son likes.

Look for clubs and activities in the school that he could join. Some schools have buddy programs. There may also be groups working on special activities like a builder's club, photography club, peer tutoring, and of course any physical activities like soccer or tennis. How about outside of school? Local community centers and Y's often have kids' activities where your son could meet others with whom he could naturally bond.

Above all, keep talking with your son. Try to get him to find exceptions to his overall hate of the school by gently, but firmly questioning him every time he uses the words "everyone," "all the time," and "no one." Keep reminding him of his strengths. Ask him what he did in his old school to keep friends. Take the spotlight off him: Ask him to look around and find someone else in his school who appears to be alone. Suggest that he strike up a conversation with that person to see if she or he might be an ally. Look at this as a problem to be solved together. One that will be solved.

Time can heal. It can also crush those who feel all alone, but your son is not alone. He has his family, even if he feels, like all adolescents do, that a peer group is as important.

Connie Collins, professional school counselor, worked for 35 years in public education as a teacher and counselor at the middle school and secondary levels. Collins worked daily with the parents of the students in her various schools, and has facilitated several parenting groups.

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