One of the most exciting, nerve-wracking, and dreaded times of year is here: the few weeks before your teen goes back to school. Your teen right now is probably experiencing some anxiety about what to expect this coming school year.
The anxiety that arises this time of year is not uncommon. Lots of teens struggle with the adjustment of returning to school. Fears of demanding teachers, anxiety about making friends, apprehension about piles of homework….these are just a few of the things that may be going through your kid’s mind right now.
It’s essential that your teen work on managing her anxiety now so she has a solid start to the new year.
Here’s a list of things you can do to help your teen cope with back to school anxiety:
Take the mystery out of school. If you kid is transitioning to junior high or high school, get her as informed about the new school as you can. If the school has an open house, take her to it. If she’s worried about how she’ll find her classes, take her to the school and walk the school with her, or enlist an older sibling or trusted friend you know who can guide her around during the first few days.
When your child knows more about what’s coming her way, she feels more certainty. Less of the unknown means less anxiety for your child. You and your child can focus on what is instead of what if.
Encourage your child to hang out with friends. No, chatting on social media all night isn’t good enough. In fact, staying glued to all the social media drama that occurs daily may increase her anxiety. Help your child connect with her friends now so she can relax and start those positive relationships that can continue into the school year.
Work on a healthy bedtime routine, before school starts. It’s tough enough to deal with all the emotions of the first day, but to deal with them while groggy? Not a good combo.
Anxiety tends to increase at night, so it’s important that your teen be able to calm her thoughts so she can asleep. The same activities done every night help the mind to wind down and the body to rest. If she’s been staying up later, roll the bedtime back in increments every night. It will be less of a hurdle than trying to send your child to bed an hour or two earlier the night before school starts.
Also, don’t be afraid to tell your teen to put the phone away, preferably at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light can interfere with her sleep cycles, and the social media drama can keep her anxiety activated.
Don’t forget the morning routine! Anxiety comes if your teen doesn’t prepare for the first morning. Does she know where her backpack is? What outfit she’ll wear? Getting ready for the day takes a lot of coordination. Going through the paces allows you and your teen to work out any kinks ahead of time and avoid any first day disasters.
Encourage your child to express her worries.
If your teen has back to school anxiety, she needs to get those thoughts out of her head. Sit down with her one-on-one and let her know you’re here to listen. She’ll feel heard and she’ll know she doesn’t have to keep feelings bottled up. Acknowledging your child’s feelings without disputing them will go a long way in easing the back to school anxiety.
Encourage a positive outlook.
Focusing on the positives can uplift your child’s mood and calm her anxiety. Help her to focus on friends she hasn’t seen in a while, upcoming after-school tryouts, or maybe that new elective she’s been excited to take.
Highlight what you know she enjoyed about last year. Also mention times when she struggled but persevered, and express confidence that you know she can do it again.
Discuss possible new opportunities she might enjoy that weren’t available to her before (senior class trip, eligibility for the varsity team, etc.).
Remember to be empathetic and compassionate. Your child may also be moody, mopey, defiant, or irritable. The problem is about the start of the school year. It’s not about you. You don’t want to start a power struggle between the two of you. Your teen needs someone on her team that understands her. Help her problem solve what the origin of the issue is and partner with her to process it.
Consider getting professional help.
Sometimes anxiety can be so overwhelming that having a professional your child can talk to may help. This is especially true if it is affecting her eating (too much or too little), sleeping (can’t fall asleep or wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep), there’s an increase in irritability, or difficulty concentrating.
Sometimes anxiety can be so intense that it can lead to depression (it’s exhausting to be anxious for so long). If you’re noticing this, definitely seek out professional help. If your child is suicidal give her the suicide hotline number 1-800-273-8255, and if she’s a danger to herself call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
Bottom line: Ultimately, adjustments are difficult for any child (parents too!), and even though your kid has done it every year since she was in preschool, it’s still hard. Keeping calm and confident in your child’s ability to adjust can go a long way in helping your teen have a more positive start to the school year.
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health.