As they move into “back to school” season, teens may be experiencing lots of anxiety around school work, schedules, friendships, and activities. They have to negotiate new teachers, try-outs for activities, and navigate new social situations. Many teens are going from a relatively relaxing summer to a highly scheduled school year and they simply may be out of “shape” for the transition back to school.
Everyone has seen a toddler having a tantrum because they don’t want to go to the grocery store or leave the playground. If you’re a parent, you probably read parenting advice on how to help young children cope with transitions. As children get older, however, you expect that they are able to transition from one activity to another with less drama, and you hope that they have internalized some of the skills they need to do so. Unfortunately, for many teenagers, transitions are still extremely stressful and anxiety provoking.
Signs your teen needs transition support
If your teenager has a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD, Executive Function Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Anxiety Disorder you might already know that they will need extra support around transitions. Even if they don’t have a clinical diagnosis, your teen may find it very challenging to transition back to school after a long break. Here are some signs to look for:
- Avoidance - If your teen is avoiding taking care of their “back-to-school” to-do list, changing the subject when you try to make plans for the school year, or procrastinating their first assignments, chances are they need your support to get back in the rhythm of things.
- Non-Compliance - This can be especially challenging. Maybe your teen is refusing to get out of bed in the morning, or having outbursts around completing their homework. Whatever the trigger, non-compliance could be a sign they are struggling with anxiety about the transition.
- Change in eating or sleep habits - This is a key sign something may be amiss with your teenager. Helping them get back on track with good eating and sleep habits can help them cope with back to school anxiety.
Empathy can reduce anxiety
Talking with your teen to help them (and you) identify how they are feeling and why is the first step to helping them move forward. If your teen is acting out, it can be frustrating and difficult to remember that they might be struggling, but having a conversation in a quiet moment might reveal the reason for their behavior.
Start the conversation with an observation and then ask a question, like “I noticed that you don’t seem to want to talk about your classes. Is there a reason?” Try not to ask leading questions like “Are you anxious about taking AP Biology?” Your teenager might either be tempted to answer yes, even if that isn’t the problem, or they might start to wonder if they should be worried about Biology!
If your teen does identify some reasons they are feeling anxious, try not to dismiss their fears. Even if the fears seem unrealistic, it is important to realize that for your teenager they may seem very real. For example, if your teenager expresses a concern that their AP Biology class has too much work, you may want to say “I know you can do it!” which feels like an encouraging statement. This may make them feel worse because they truly believe they can't do it. Instead, try to get more information by helping them go over the syllabus; then help them take the next step to make a plan for getting the assignments completed, or find out if there is tutoring or office hours available when they could get extra help from the teacher. Psychology Today also has some suggestions on stress management strategies and ways to frame conversations with your teenager to build stress resilience.
While you don’t want to amplify the anxiety, the message you want to send is “I know you’re worried, and that’s okay. I’m here to help you through this.”
Create healthy habits to reduce anxiety
Chances are, your teenager has seen you dealing with stress in your own life. Reflect on how you deal with your stress. Do you get short-tempered? Do you eat too much? Do you go for a run to blow off steam? Have a conversation with your teen about your own experiences with stress and anxiety and come up with some good ways to help both of you create healthier habits.
For example, if sleeping is an issue for your teen when they are stressed, perhaps identify some things they can do to make going to bed easier, like putting away their phone/iPad/computer an hour or so before an optimal bedtime. Agree that you will try this too and it will be a lot easier to convince them to do it!
Another healthy habit to try as a family may be mindfulness or meditation. At Rock Point School, we offer a yoga and mindfulness class first thing in the morning as a way for students to get focused and centered for the day. Some students find mindfulness exercises help calm their minds before bed, too. Here is another great resource for some mindfulness activities to try.
Making sure you are eating healthy foods, getting good rest, and exercising will help reduce your own stress, but also encourage your teen to do the same. The earlier you can set up these habits, the easier they will be to maintain through the school year.
Get more support
If your teen is unable to move through their anxiety around transitions, it may be time to seek help from a doctor, guidance counselor, or therapist. Many teens need extra support to build their coping skills as they move into adulthood. Sometimes, getting an outside perspective can help move everyone forward.
Here is a convenient check-list of ways to help your teen through a back-to-school transition period: