Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Adolescence and the Worrisome Transition to High School

Entry into the older world of high school is exciting, but can be scary, too.

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Many years ago, conducting a student leadership workshop in a high school gymnasium, I was given a kind of emotional tour through grades 9 – 12. Gathered at each of the four corners of the floor were a sampling of one grade, and the group assignment was to talk with each other about the good and hard parts of that high school year. Then the class in each corner would report out to the larger assembly what was discussed.

Of course, I don’t remember the specific statements after all this time, but some general impressions linger on. First was the physical alteration that unfolded from freshman to senior year. The youngest grade looked so young, and the oldest grade looked so old. No wonder the freshman were daunted by worldly seniors and seniors were dismissive of inexperienced freshmen.

As the group reporting proceeded one corner to the next, there was a changing emotional tone from freshman to senior year. Freshman, feeling demoted from the dominant class in middle school, described feeling worried about catching hold in this larger school of older students. They were ready for older experiences and couldn’t wait to be seniors and “rule the school.” Sophomores reported feeling more comfortable and knowing their way around, grateful to longer to be at the bottom of the age heap. Juniors were extremely confident and system-wise. They knew how to make their way and get their needs met.

Then came the seniors’ turn, triumphantly reporting from the pinnacle of high school what life at the top was like. The freshmen eagerly awaited the good news, but were truly disillusioned by what they heard. Seniors reported feeling all kinds of pressures about preparing for after high school, for moving on, for more independent living, and missing their community of classmates. They were truly stressed out on these accounts. So insecure freshmen had a chance to listen to anxious seniors fretting about what lay ahead. It sounded like the journey through high school not only had a worrisome beginning, but a sobering end.

Concerned about their transition into high school, the freshman had not really thought about exit concerns 4 years hence. At the moment, they had enough entry worries of their own, worries that are honorably come by.

There were Personal worries about adequacy: “How am I going to be accepted, fit in, and make a place for myself in this larger, older school?”

There were Organizational worries about adjustment: “How am I going to find my way through all these new customs, routines, and rules?”

There were Social worries about association: “How am I going to meet and make a group of friends to hang out with in this crowd of strangers?”

There were Academic worries about achievement: “How am I going to keep my grades up when there is more and harder school work to do?”

The beginning freshman experience can be a daunting one. “I made my way through middle school and it wasn’t easy; but high school is like starting over, only tougher.” You can appreciate how a well put-together orientation program for incoming freshmen can provide needed information and early socializing that can answer questions, reduce ignorance, simulate schedule, and increase sense of student community. I believe it’s an investment worth the high school making.

Also, I think parents can lend a hand. They can normalize worry for example, explain its value, and then suggest how to put it to constructive use.

They can explain how Worry is a complex emotional experience, helpful in many ways, harmful in some.

Worry is questioning: it asks “What if?” and “Just suppose?”

Worry is warning: it forecasts dangers.

Worry is imaginative; it wonders the worst.

Worry is pro-active; it thinks ahead.

Worry is cautious; it slows down decision-making.

Worry is preventative: it anticipates risks.

Worry is protective; it prompts preparation.

Worry is scary; it increases anxiety.

Worry is limiting: it reduces confidence.

Since worry is concerned with “What if?” or “Just suppose?”; to manage worry parents can suggest the young person evaluate what is being asked. First, check out the likelihood of what you fear. Unlikely possibilities or outcomes many not be worth the worry time they take. “At first I worried that if I ever got less than an ‘A’ freshman year I’d never get into college after graduation; but talking with the counselor, now I think that worry really isn’t so.” And don’t worry about the unrealistic or unknowable. “How can I be sure all the teachers will like me?”

Is there’s some reality to your worry: “How likely is it that after trying out I may not make the team?” If there is a lot of good competition for very few positions, then consider future options after not making the cut. “I’ll just think about the next best thing I want for myself and go after that.” Worry works best when it anticipates risks, allows for prevention, or results in contingency planning should the unwanted occur.

“Don’t worry” is not good parental advice. Better is: “Use worry to stay vigilant for possible problems. Use it to take Predictive Responsibility for your actions and plans by thinking ahead and asking yourself “What if?” and “Just suppose?” Then perhaps engage in in some contingency planning just in case: “If things started to go wrong, this is what I could do.” It’s a delicate balance you are trying to strike between considering unhappy possibilities, but not allowing this preparation to burden you with dread and incapacitate you with alarm. Like many other unhappy feelings, worry is a good servant, but a bad master.

In early and mid-adolescence (ages 9 – 15) it’s easy to be preoccupied with Now and satisfying immediate gratification, ignoring any possibility of harm that present choices might bring. At this insecure age, a young person may deny danger to feel invulnerable, not have a worry in the world like the iconic “What, me worry?” kid, Alfred E. Newman, the poster face of Mad Magazine.

However, in late adolescence (ages 15 – 18), when more older risk taking occurs, it’s probably safer to have worries (though it doesn’t feel that way) than to start the journey of high school worry-free. This way, problems from this older risk taking might be expected, maybe moderated, or even avoided by thinking ahead. "If I don't use protection, life could get complicated." "If I'm planning to drink, then I better not drive."

So the parent might explain: “Just because worry is a pain doesn’t mean it’s bad. Instead, it’s good for suggesting bad things that might happen if you don’t watch out. High school is a good time to keep your worry wits about you as you grow.”