By now school has been in full swing for a few weeks and some familiar struggles might return between parents and teens. The carefree days of summer are gone and it’s back to waking up early, packing backpacks, and late nights doing homework. As a therapist who has worked in high schools for many years I often compare this time to jumping into an icy cold pool. It is hard at first, but just like a freezing cold swimming pool my body (and mind) adjust and it almost feels like summer never happened (insert crying face emoji here).
Imagine if you were about to run and jump into that cold pool, what would it feel like? Scary? Exciting? Nerve wracking? Would you want to run away? I know I probably would, and if someone told me I didn’t have to do it I wouldn’t! It would be nice if you could ease into that pool and slowly let your body adjust, but what if you couldn’t?
So what’s all this cold pool talk about anyway? Well, I imagine if I’ve felt that way going back to school as a staff member the students must feel that way too, and probably an amplified version of that. Some kids are filled with dread, some are excited to see friends and teachers again, some might be indifferent and some are just plain anxious, but no matter how they view school they are all jumping right in, no easing into the pool here.
So what if your teen struggles with adjusting back to school and never seems to warm up? Could they possibly be dealing with anxiety? Maybe. Back to school jitters are normal, but when a teen’s mood gets in the way of everyday functioning it’s time to pay attention.
A LOT of teens I see struggle with anxiety, especially when it comes to school. While it might be related to academics, it can also stem from stressful social interactions, a challenging relationship with a teacher, or just trying to keep up in general. For anxious kids in school they can start to feel like their drowning which can lead to avoiding class and homework or isolating from peers and family. I’ve seen it over and over again, a teen feels anxious about school (or a particular class), they become avoidant of school and homework and they fall behind even more which only creates more anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.
So how can a parent help their teen break this cycle?
- Give them room to feel anxious, it’s totally normal. We all feel anxious sometimes and there’s nothing wrong with that. Uncomfortable? Sure. Bad? Nope! What I want the teens I work with to learn is that it’s totally normal to feel this way, even if it feels really extreme. I want them to know that it’s manageable and there are ways they can learn how to cope!
- Validate! One of the most common things I hear from my teens is that they should “get over it” or the classic “What do you have to worry about? All you have to do is go to school!” The more a parent can validate and try to understand where their teen is coming from, the more likely their teen will be to open up to them. It’s amazing how much that alone can deflate anxious feelings.
- Ask them what they need to feel supported. It’s so common to assume we know what the other person needs (Hi, I’m guilty of this sometimes too). Turns out if we just ask we’ll be better equipped the next time they need support. Forcing your own ideas of how they should deal with it will only exacerbate the issue, especially with teens. Trust me on this one.
- If they’re up for it, communicating with teachers about the situation can be helpful, or better yet, empower them to open that communication door. There have been so many times where I have offered this support to a teen and almost every time they said yes. They want help but it can be really hard to ask for it (who doesn’t struggle to ask for help every now and then?) Having teachers know they’re having a hard time can help ease anxiety walking into the classroom on that first day. In my experience teachers want to be helpful and they want your child to succeed!
- Have them start therapy! A therapist (like me!) can help them develop coping skills to manage in the moment. It’s also a great opportunity to help them explore the root of their anxiety. Having a better idea of where it’s coming from can help normalize their feelings and allow them to see a path towards coping and healing.
If you need more help and support:
Public Schools: Did you know that every public high school in San Francisco has a Wellness Center? Check out their mission right here: https://sfwellness.org/
This is a quiet space where kids can take a break from class, have a cup of tea, and refocus themselves so they can get back to work. There are plenty of adults that they can check in with if they need a little support in the moment.
As someone who has worked in Wellness Centers for many years I know how beneficial this resource is. Your school’s website will have a Wellness Center section and you can easily check out their services or just let your teen know it’s available (chances are they already know about it!)
Private Schools: Some private schools have licensed therapists on site but they might only work with students short term or already have a full caseload. If you need something off site or longer term many of the school counselors usually have an extensive list of providers they can refer parents to.