Blog 19: Transition for 12 and 18 year olds

Written by Jim Sheehy

Hi.  My name is Jim Sheehy.  This is and this podcast is about transitions for 12 and 18 year olds, two critical ages when young person’s shift from one level of education to another.

What is it about transitions that provokes anxiety?  There is a combination of fear and excitement, risk and experimentation. It tells a lot about who we are and we only find out the truth when the transition tests us to the limit. I will give a personal example.  Thirty years ago, I made a decision to leave a good job in Dublin to live in Belfast.  My girlfriend wasn’t for moving so I did.

In one year, I made 3 transitions - moved from peaceful Dublin to a divided and troubled Belfast, from being single to married, from cushy University job to a school specialising in grind exam classes.  It very nearly broke me!  Exhaustion, stress, near-fatal car accident!  What did I learn: one major transition is life is tough, 2 is very tricky, 3 is too much. I was strong going into these transitions but change demands a lot of inner and external energy.  I over-estimated my energy resources and near enough burned out completely.  The positive bonus was I discovered I could ‘rough it’ in Belfast from being a cultured Dublin snobby type and that being weak as I was brought forward friends I count on to this day, 25 years later.  Also, MS was about to happen and I was better prepared in coping with a chronic condition after my ‘transition year from hell’.

Let’s talk about 12 year olds.  They have just spent a year being the ‘big fish’ in their Primary school setting. They physically tower over the younger children, they are the boys and girls with privileged roles of responsibility and they exude confidence and ability.  Then comes the move to the ‘big school’ where they arrive as ‘very small fish in a huge pool’ of adolescents.  The challenge will test every inch and ounce of their identity-strength.  If there are any cracks or gaps in their first 12 years of intense development, they will be cruelly exposed. That ego-strength will be tested in how they make new friends, adapt to structure and complex timetables and lockers, size up and cope with more than one teacher and strange new subjects.

An 18 year old client recalled how, after a happy enough Primary School experience, he suffered a broken leg 4 weeks after his arrival into Second Level requiring him to miss six weeks of school.  By the time he returned, all friendship groups had been formed and his sensitive personality felt excluded.  It only got progressively worse and being bullied and harassed formed his daily experience throughout the remaining 5 years in the school.  Amazing how a minor disruption in the first term could dictate so much but this is why the first term in second level is so critical and why schools and parents need to be on high alert.

What do I mean by ‘gaps and cracks in the child’s identity’?  Up to now, the child has survived or thrived in relative comfort zones.  There has been a lot of protection: parents / guardians /teacher are tuned in to ensure that home, Primary School and community are synchronised and relevant to the specific needs of a child.  The boy or girl is surrounded by predictability in Primary School (one teacher all day) and then, in one fell swoop, everything changes.  For the majority of children, the transition is successful but what of the minority who enter this environment ill-prepared.  This boy or girl is not self-contained; rather than confidence in their feeling and thinking worlds, they look to everyone and everything outside to rate their worth.  They can be lucky or unlucky.  Meeting friendly peers and supportive teachers can ensure their need to be approved of continues in their young lives.  Unlucky if tough peers and indifferent teachers only see sensitive and vulnerable children who are fair game in bullying scenarios and unrealistic academic pressure.

The transition from Second to Third Level Education can be just as challenging.  College or University spells ‘FREEDOM’ for 18 year olds and again, for the majority of students it is an exhilarating experience.  For some who believe it will magically transform their anxious or depressed inner world, it is disappointing. More external freedom, greater choice of friends, interesting degree subjects can’t change how these students experience themselves, their world or their future.  I have had 18 year old Leaving Cert clients who believed moving city would be the solution to their issues and return disillusioned in October from College to really do their inner work.  And when they do, Third Level becomes the amazing experience they had wished for. So, transition teaches us that wherever we go, we will find our real selves waiting there for us.

A word to parents who really suffer if their 12 year old or 18 year old is deeply unhappy while their peers are having a great time.  The parents need support which is often sadly lacking.  Parent say to me: ‘This is beyond us and it’s wrecking our family’.  And indeed parents are very limited in being able to help their son or daughter.  Even Principals of Second Level schools struggle to get behind the very reactive behaviours of students stressed with anxiety, on the verge of being constantly triggered into rage attacks, of children who just don’t see the point of living or whose only way of stopping the pain is obsessional gaming or self-harming.  This is a time all of us adults need to recognise that no amount of managing behaviour through a ‘grounding punishment ritual’ at home or imposing ‘detention / suspension / expulsion’ at school will help these children.  These children all experience a specific timing when they are fully aware their life is chaotic and sad; when they, through appealing tear-filled eyes, beg someone to enter their world who they themselves can choose to trust, a professional with the skills and personality they deserve.  We as a society are beginning to wake up to what our children are saying every day.  If we truly love them, we must accelerate our efforts.

A big thank you to Clara Ferry from Arranmore Island for her artistic view on transition. 

Presentations on the 4 zones are also available on video and blog through the website – see

If you enjoy the material, please get the word out there among those you care for.  You can contact me with comment or suggestion via Facebook at Jim Sheehy Therapy and on Twitter @jimsheehy2017

Take care,

Clarifying Disclaimer:  While the material I am presenting is well-researched and suitable for the general population, I believe each person’s issues and needs are unique.  I encourage you to seek medical and/or therapeutic support if you struggle with an issue or condition that negatively and seriously impacts your life.












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Jim Sheehy M.Ed. MIACP
Co Donegal 
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