My eldest grandchild, Noah, just graduated middle school. Here is what he wrote to us:
“I don’t know if I said this already, but thanks so much for the graduation money. This is a pretty big milestone for me. I’m starting summer school tomorrow! It feels weird going back to school, and even weirder that I’m going to high school. I’m also getting homework. ☹
I’ll keep you posted on everything going on and thanks again for the gift!”
Of course, when someone, especially a grandson, uses the word “weird,” a psychiatrist’s ears perks up. Then, when our editor, Rob Golub, wondered if I wanted to comment on the back to school transition, how could I resist?
All transitions are psychologically important, as they entail dealing with the losses of what was enjoyed and not so enjoyed, as well as the anticipatory anxiety about new challenges. When a child transitions not only a grade, but to a new school and to a new set of grades, all of this is intensified. Feeling “weird,” or unsettled, is therefore normal.
Jews as a whole are known as the “people of the book.” As such, it seems self-evident that school would be important to most Jewish families.
Any educator tends to emphasize what needs to be learned each year, whether in a secular school, Hebrew school or Jewish private school. Also needing attention is how the student is doing as far as their moral, social and physical development.
We psychiatrists tend to pay the most attention to psychological development. Because of the prominence of psychological challenges in the Torah, later rabbinic wisdom and the predominance of Jewish doctors in the development of modern day psychology and psychiatry, we could also be said to be “people of the mind.”
The most famous psychiatrist of all time, Sigmund Freud, who was Jewish, described the early school years as the latency stage, meaning that the emotional turmoil of the oral, anal and Oedipal stages should be settling down, allowing the mind to more readily focus on school learning. Of course, if those earlier stages were too conflictual and unresolved, such as becoming too dependent, too rebellious, or too competitive with the same gender parent, that can interfere with learning and may need professional help. Or, if there are psychiatric disorders that emerge in these early years that effect learning, like attention deficit disorder or the autism spectrum, that needs professional help.
The high school years
However, I will focus most on the high school transition, not only because Noah is entering that, but it is the time of the most emotional turmoil. Why? Puberty and its hormonal changes cause natural and intense fluctuations in mood, as well as rapid body changes. The brain, however, lags behind in its development and, in most cases, only gains the cognitive ability to take better control of our emotions until our early 20s.
Moreover, high school is when many of our most severe psychiatric disorders first emerge, including substance abuse, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders, and especially anxiety disorders which over a third of girls and over a quarter of boys aged 13-17 now have. There now seems to be an increased concern about falling behind starting in middle school. Any of these can lead to the most worrisome outcome of all, suicide.
The psychologist, Erik Erikson, extended Freud’s ideas to psychosocial stages of development. In adolescence, that task or crisis is identity vs. role confusion. This is the time to begin to form a solid identity, both personal and Jewish. If you are different in any substantial way, that increases the challenge, as is depicted in the Tony award-winning play, “Dear Evan Hanson,” a presentation of a high school senior with social anxiety who made a hidden suicide attempt.
Sounds complicated, no? It almost makes you wonder how so many make it through successfully. Here are some things that may help and which I will pay attention to in my grandson.
- Know that a certain degree of anxiety, not too little and not too much, during school transitions is normal, both for students and parents.
- Embrace anticipatory anxiety to learn whatever is possible about the new school grade or system so as to achieve some initial sense of mastery.
- Watch for any signs of an impending mental disorder in students, such as unremitting anxiety, poor sleep, striking personality changes, new learning problems, suicide references, and unusual thinking, and, if noted, gently discuss together as a family and get the help of school counselors and/or outside professionals.
- Use community resources for mental health knowledge and support, such as REDgen and Jewish Family Services in Milwaukee.
- Look for the successful resolution of psychosocial stages: some autonomy by the end of preschool; initiative after kindergarten; industry after middle school; emergence of one’s own identity after high school; readiness for intimacy after college; and by my age of continuing education, hopefully some wisdom.
- Understand the new challenges of our internet age, including that 1-3 hours a day on social media with friends for adolescents seems optimal.
- Avoid ignoring what is being left behind, as dealing with that adequately via rituals and discussion, is essential for closure.
Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He and his wife Rusti are co-chairs of Tapestry, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s arts and ideas programs.