Back To School Anxiety With Your Teen? Tips For Helping Your Teen Readjust to School
Updated: Aug 9, 2022
August is here & back to school prep is in full swing! We're shopping for new backpacks, revamping our school wardrobe, and getting our schedules in line for a busy and productive new school year. However, in the midst of all of our back to school prep, there is an underlying buzz of uncertainty for many of our adolescents. There is an uptick in the occurrence of anxiety disorders in teens. This has created a wave of mental heath challenges that stem from the lack of security and safety teens experience. Some of the safety concerns my teen clients have shared include the gun violence epidemic & rise of school shootings, increase in bullying & cyberbullying, challenges with keeping up with the sheer amount of work & homework expected of them, and physical fights breaking out at school between peers. After a few months of reprieve from these concerns, teens are now having to face them again upon the start of the new school year. Here are a few tips to help your teens re-adjust to school & develop a stronger sense of safety in these next few weeks.
Validate Their Concerns
Anxiety is like our body's fire alarm system. It's an indicator that lets us know we don't necessarily feel safe in our environment. This comes in handy when we are actually in danger, but sometimes this system is kicked into overdrive and works a little too well. While many of the threats teens are sharing seem out of the realm of possibility, they really may not be. Some of the things teens are experiencing anxiety about are really happening. They may have been witness to moments of danger, whether it was through a screen on social media or on their own campus. Secondary trauma viewed through social media or the news can be just as triggering to a teen's nervous system as the event actually happening to them. It's important to allow our teens concerns to feel heard & seen. Using validating statements like "I see where you are coming from" or "Wow, that does make a lot of sense. I can see why you feel that way" can help teens feel less isolated in their own experience, and more apt to want to open up and share more about their feelings. We may not be able to directly fix large macro-scale concerns like changing gun laws or school safety policies. However, just because we can't directly fix something doesn't mean we can't be of help.
Explore The Brain/Body Connection Together
It's also incredibly important to help foster a teen's ability to develop their own sense of safety, inner trust, and emotion regulation. Moments of anxiety, sadness, or anger may come up at school, but we can use strategies to help self soothe when they arise. Some of the best tools we have are within ourselves (yes, adults too!). Our brains and our bodies are connected through our nervous system, which means we often experience physical warning signs of anxiety before we experience the emotional ones. We can help slow or stop this process through the use of breath work, sensory based grounding exercises, and mindfulness. I find many of my teen clients find the explanation of the brain/body connection to anxiety very helpful. It is validating to their experience, and also provides them with an easy to grasp explanation of what is happening in their brain and body when they feel anxious. It creates a sense of control in moments when teens often don't feel very in control. Try practicing the 5 senses grounding exercise or a 5 minute breathing meditation with your teen, and explore how they may be able to use it during tough moments at school. Take turns sharing your experiences during this exercise. How did you each feel physically, emotionally, and mentally afterwards? This helps develop common ground & good behavior modeling for your teen.
Focus On What They Can Control
Teen brains are all about creating and seeking autonomy. Teens want to forge their own path, make their own choices, and start down the path towards independence. One of the ways we can help foster this need for autonomy is to help remind teens of the power and choices they do have access to and harness them. At school, many things are out of their control. They may not have control over their own schedule at times, when assignments are due, who is being mean or kind to them, or even what they can wear. In a deeper sense, teens often feel a lack of control over the safety of their environment at school. This has been exacerbated over the last few years due to the pandemic, uptick in school shootings, and increase in physical fights at school. Unfortunately, this creates an underlying sense of anxiety for many teens. One of my favorite ways to help them challenge this anxiety is to help empower them with remembering the areas of their life they can exert some of their autonomy. Grab a piece of paper with your teens & split it into 2 columns - What they can control vs. What they can't control. Help your teen review areas of both. Be sure to include things in the control column like places they can take mental health breaks on campus, finding supportive people at school, ways they can practice coping skills at school, and practicing basic needs like eating & drinking. Take time to provide encouragement for the strengths based areas the teens can control for themselves, and shine a light on how this exercise can help them manage their anxiety on days when they don't feel as in control as they would prefer.
Seek Out Therapy for Your Teen
Therapy is a great way to help your teen develop coping skills, process their fears, and find ways to move through them in a healing way. Sometimes we need a little support developing our "toolbox" for dealing with anxiety, and that is totally ok! Seeking out therapy helps provide teens and parents with the support needed to navigate going back to school. Many teen therapists have after school appointments available to fit scheduling and extracurricular needs, but these spots can be limited. Finding a therapist in the weeks prior to school starting can help jumpstart the trust & rapport needed to have a great therapist/client relationship, and allow the teen to feel most supported during the first few weeks of their transition back to school.