My son just started 7th grade which is his first year of middle school. While he is a gifted student and has always done well in his classes, he suddenly hates school this year. He complains constantly and is very stressed out and anxious. He desperately wants to switch schools but I am not sure if that is really something we should consider mid year. What can we do to help him?
Mother of Miserable Kid
Dear Mother of Miserable Kid,
A parent is only as happy as their most unhappy childThere is this great saying that a parent is only as happy as their most unhappy child. So clearly if you are describing your son as miserable, things can't too easy for you either right now!
You mention a number of important factors, each which should be looked at separately, and then in context of the overall situation. Firstly, as I am sure you are well aware, transitioning to middle school from elementary school is a difficult process. There is a lot to get used to and a lot that is completely new. Suddenly your child is moving from class to class, has different teachers and a lot more responsibility both in terms of homework and in the areas of organization and time management to deal with.
In addition, as I am sure you are also well aware, a seventh grade boy is changing internally and with all these hormonal shifts, mood swings are not only common, but to be expected.
So that said, now the trick is figuring out if your child is simply suffering the teenage angst of growing up and changing, or if there is really something more substantial that is happening that is making your child miserable.
Kids love to complain. And if you let them, they can find fault in just about everything and everyone. Yet just letting your son rant about school is not helpful for him or for you. You need to help him clarify exactly what it is that is bothering him and then differentiate between what can be changed or worked on, and what might be out of both of your hands.
For starters, try to empathize with your child and his situation. We all have stories about hating school at different points or a teacher or student who picked on us and made us miserable. Share them with him. Let him know you understand what it is like not to be happy in school and how overwhelming it can be. Reassure him that you understand he is unhappy, you are taking it seriously and you want him to know that he can speak to you about what is bothering him.
Then try to get him to verbalize what the issues are. Is he having a hard time with a particular teacher? Maybe a particular subject? Are the kids picking on him? Are there any social problems? Do not let him get away with a blanket statement that he hates everything about school. He needs to clarify exactly what he doesn't like, and what is causing the dislike. Not liking a teacher is not sufficient. What doesn't he like about the teacher? Is it her teaching style? Is she picking on him in class? Does he find the subject matter boring?
Even if he has legitimate complaints, hopefully you can use this as an opportunity to teach him the importance in life in learning to deal with situations we don't like. While clearly we try to do everything possible to ensure that conditions are ideal, very often we have to accept much less. And learning to get along with people we are not crazy about or learning to work within an environment that is not our comfort zone is part of growing up and an essential skill for a successful future both socially and within the workforce.
You need to help him clarify exactly what it is that is bothering himCommunication is key here. Once you are able to speak openly with your son and he can express and define what is bothering him, then you will have the information you need to determine what the next step should be. But even if you don't feel anything can be changed (he has a teacher with a boring teaching style who is not about to change after thirty years of teaching this way) etc. just by having him share with you the issue, it will already help him feel better. Speaking about a problem and expressing it to someone else helps clarify what the issue really is and takes the full burden off of him. This is why the Hebrew word for healing, refuah, is comprised of the letters for ohr peh, the light of the mouth. That speaking about a problem is the first step to working through it.
But the communication should not stop between you and your son. Once you are aware of what is bothering him, and you have his permission, it might be time to speak to his school. Perhaps there is a guidance counselor who can be made aware of what is bothering him and keep tabs on what is happening. Perhaps the principal needs to be made aware if a student or faculty member is not treating him well. And if the problem is with the class or teacher, very often the teacher is more than happy to have an open and honest discussion regarding the kids in the class. No teacher wants to be hated, and often the teacher is overwhelmed with not knowing what it is the student needs. So being able to discuss your son with him or her and express what you feel the issues are and offer suggestions for how things could be better, gives some practical tips for implementing change.
Regarding switching schools, that should be used as a last resort. Not only is a switch after the year has begun even more of a transition, but nothing guarantees that he will be any happier anywhere else. Only if you are fully convinced that the issues are related specifically to his teachers or the environment in the school and that the school is unwilling to change or work with you at all, would I suggest looking into another option. You also don't want to give your son the impression that when the going gets tough, you will always just find him another option. Part of growing up is learning to work through difficult situations and learning to make the best of things, even when not ideal. So again, I am not saying that there is never a reason to switch schools, but it should be a last resort.
Lastly, the Torah teaches us that each child needs to be educated according to his way, chanoch le'naar al pi darko. In an ideal situation, this would translate into an individualized teaching style and curriculum that is best suited for the every student. Yet since this is impractical in most schools, at the very least you can help understand your child and his needs, and help express those needs to the school so that whenever possible they can be implemented.
Your son is fortunate to have a mother who is so concerned about his happiness and takes his issues seriously. Help him communicate and express what is bothering him. You might get lucky and find that all he really wanted was to be able to vent and be understood. But if there really is something more than the typical teenage pains, he should know that you are there for him with open ears and will help him find his way as much as you can!