How To Deal With Back To High School Anxiety

How to deal with back to high school anxiety

Returning to high school after a long break or starting a new academic year can be a stressful time for many students. The transition from a relaxed schedule to a structured social environment and rigid school routine can trigger feelings of anxiety and worry.

For teenagers in particular, they're not only dealing with academic and social pressures, they're going through tremendous physical changes that can add more stress. Since COVID-19, symptoms of anxiety among teens is on the rise, with almost 30% showing signs of distressed mental health. 

How do you deal with high school anxiety?

While every teen is different, here are some practical tips to help high schoolers manage their back-to-school anxiety effectively.

1. Establish Healthy Routines

One of the most effective ways to combat anxiety is by establishing healthy routines. This includes ensuring your teen is getting enough sleep, eating regular meals and healthy snacks, and exercising daily. A structured routine can provide a sense of security and predictability, reducing feelings of anxiety.

How Can Parents Help?

Parents can play a pivotal role in helping their teen establish healthy routines. Here are some practical steps:

  • Encourage your teen to keep to a consistent sleep schedule – at least during the school week. To the extent possible, keeping the same sleep schedule through the weekend too is better for mental and physical health, but it's not always easy to convince your teen.
  • Prepare and model healthy, balanced eating habits. Talk about how eating at roughly the same time each day can improve mood and attention, decrease brain fog and keep your teen more alert.
  • Encourage your teen to get daily physical activity, whether it's by signing up for a school or club sport, taking a walk or going to the health club. 
  • Talk with your teen about limiting their screen time and how social media can impact their mental health and hinder sleep. 

2. Encourage Open Communication

Open communication is key to understanding and addressing your child's worries. Encourage your teen to express their thoughts and concerns about returning to school. Validating their emotions and providing reassurance can help alleviate their anxiety.

How Can Parents Help?

Parents can foster open communication with their teens by:

  • Creating a safe and non-judgmental space for your teen to express their feelings.
  • Listening actively to your teen's concerns and validating their feelings.
  • Making themselves available to listen and provide reassurance and guidance if their teen asks. Remember, sometimes your teen just wants someone to listen, so avoid the urge to immediately jump to problem solving. Focus on listening and validating, and then ask if your teen would like ideas or guidance. A normal part of teen development is to assert independence and telling your teen what to do may cause them to pull away. 
  • Setting up a “safe space” around communication, letting them know that they can share concerns without fear of getting punished for unsafe behaviors.

3. Promote Positive Mindset and Coping Strategies

Teaching your teen to approach situations with a positive mindset and equipping them with coping strategies can help manage anxiety. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or simple mindfulness exercises can be valuable tools in moments of stress.

How Can Parents Help?

Parents can promote a positive mindset and coping strategies by:

  • Talk to your teen and ask them about what they consider to be the positive aspects of going back to school.
  • Encouraging them to learn and practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation. One type of meditation called mindfulness has a number of research-supported benefits, including reduced stress, improved focus, decreased worrying, and improved emotion regulation.
  • Helping them navigate potentially stressful situations by role-playing scenarios.
  • Recognize that your teen may not always be comfortable talking with you about certain things, and let them know you support their seeking help from other reliable adults.

4. Encourage Participation in Non-academic Activities

Participation in non-academic activities such as clubs, sports, or other extracurricular activities can prevent teen loneliness, provide a positive distraction, help make new friends, and boost confidence. This can help reduce feelings of anxiety and increase a sense of belonging and acceptance.

How Can Parents Help?

Parents can encourage participation in non-academic activities by:

  • Supporting your teen's interests and encouraging them to join relevant clubs or activities.
  • Helping them balance their academic responsibilities with their extracurricular activities.
  • Fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment in their non-academic achievements.
  • For some kids, finding a job might be a great option to foster self-confidence and build structure  in their schedule.

6. Talk To Other Parents

Engaging with other parents, teachers, and school staff can help you stay updated on school events and assignments, address your concerns, and support your teen better. Many schools use apps or websites to communicate with parents, and these can be a handy tool to help your teen prepare and manage stress.

How Can Parents Help?

Parents can communicate with the school and other parents by:

  • Subscribing to school newsletters, apps, or websites that provide regular updates regarding school events, tests, and assignments.
  • Engaging in parent-teacher meetings to discuss their teen's progress and any concerns.
  • Connecting with other parents to share tips, experiences, and advice.

7. Seek Professional Help If Needed

If your teen's anxiety becomes too much for them to handle, don't hesitate to consult a therapist or counselor who specializes in adolescent anxiety. Early intervention can prevent anxiety from escalating and negatively affecting a teen's performance in school and overall quality of life.

“It is particularly important to watch for signs of anxiety in late adolescence and early adulthood, as this is the time when most anxiety disorders first develop,” explains Dr. Taylor Dreher, PhD, Clinical Psychologist at Healthy Young Minds.“

Common signs of anxiety include excessive worrying, irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, fidgeting/restlessness, muscle tension, difficulty focusing, headaches, and stomach aches.

  • “If your teen's anxiety symptoms cause distress or interfere with their daily life (for example, by impacting their ability to socialize, complete their schoolwork, take exams, participate in extracurricular activities, etc.), they may have an anxiety disorder. Addressing symptoms early through therapy can help your teen learn healthy coping strategies to carry with them for the rest of their life. Untreated anxiety causes excessive stress hormones in the body, which has been linked to health problems like high blood pressure, headaches, and digestive issues, to name a few.”

How Can Parents Help?

Parents can help by being attentive to their teen's behavior and feelings, and by:

  • Consulting a mental health professional if your teen's anxiety seems severe or if it interferes with their daily life.
  • Coordinating with the school counselor to provide additional support at school.
  • Supporting your teen through therapy sessions and reinforcing the coping strategies learned.

Written by Dr. Cari Whitlock

Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Healthy Young Minds

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