My son is struggling to settle into secondary school

My 12-year-old son has just entered secondary school. Just one boy from his primary school has gone to the same secondary. While he is doing well academically, he is struggling to make friends. In the first weeks a number of the boys in his mixed class were engaging in bullying behaviour as they all clumsily sorted out the ranks.

When I spoke to the school it seems that I was last in line after a number of other parents complained about the boys who were bullying. They appear to have broken up and the behaviour hopefully nipped in the bud. However, my son has not yet regained his self-confidence and is slow to engage in social activities.

When he talks to friends on social media, his messaging can be blunt and while he tells me that “no one uses full sentences”, it appears to me that messages are simply confusing and misunderstood when making arrangements, for example. I think this is causing him to miss out.

He is now beginning to feel sick and miss school more frequently. He has never so much as had a cold in his first 12 years so I’m not used to calibrating when he should go in or stay at home. I have a medical background and know that I am less likely to pay heed to sniffles, however, my gut on this one is that it is emotional and I sense he is run down. The balance of when to let him have a rest day or when to dig a bit deeper for that resilience needed to get on with it is my daily struggle.

Starting secondary school is full of challenges especially when it comes to getting on with the other kids and making friends. Young teenagers start secondary school at the height of puberty, when they are full of hormones, intensely awkward and lacking social skills. In first and second year, exclusion and bullying behaviour peaks as children clumsily try to work out their identity and in which “tribe” they belong. At 12 and 13, they have not yet developed sophisticated social skills, yet they are full of aggression and sexual drive. This can lead to banter, slagging and mean behaviour which often results in children being hurt and excluded.

To make things worse, social anxiety is at its height at the start of secondary school and children who found it natural and easy to reach out and make friends in primary, suddenly become self-conscious, reserved and awkward. While not having his primary friendship group with him means he is starting from scratch in making friends, there are also advantages, in that he is not predefined by his previous friends and he can more easily reach out to other children who are also starting alone and in need of new friendships.

Teenagers often find it excruciatingly hard to open up and talk about friendship worries and school stresses. A good approach is to make sure you have daily one-to-one times when you are available and there for him. This might be meal times or the drive to school or going for a walk or simply watching TV together. Aim to prioritise times when you can have a bit of chat and enjoy each other’s company. Be careful about putting pressure on him to “open up” and instead focus on listening to whatever he wants to talk about. Be understanding, encouraging and available to listen about problems when he is ready to talk about them.

Listen carefully to what is going on for him in school, who is in his class, what activities he enjoys, and so on. Try to identify potential friends and the school activities he most enjoys. Also, contact the school as a follow-up to the bullying that happened and ask about their supports for children who are struggling socially. Some schools organise lunchtime activities such as chess, music, quiz or sports clubs to help children engage and meet others.

If your son is open to it, you can coach him in his social skills. It sounds like you are already discussing his social media communications with him. Support him to think through the best way to approach friends and make social arrangements. Rather than giving him advice, often the best way to influence him positively is to ask questions such as “What are the best activities to do with a new friend?” “What is the way to arrange a meeting?” Listen carefully to his answers and help him think things through.

You can also help by being a good facilitator, for example, offering to provide pizza if friends come round for a movie night or to drive them to sports or bowling or by making subtle contact with parents of potential friends. When you see and hear him talking to other children, you will get a sense of how he is doing and the support he needs.

While of course there are times when children are genuinely sick and even tired when they need a day off school, try to avoid getting into a pattern of missing school due to stress. Encourage your son to talk about his stresses and be supportive but do what you can to ensure he is brave and still goes in. Later in the day discuss strategies with him for managing stress and dealing with what he is avoiding and discuss how you can support him to keep going. Identifying rewarding activities in the school week and planning rewards that happen after the school day might help motivate him.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in December 2022. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is