For high schoolers, back-to-school anxiety is normal, but sometimes teens worry excessively and for a duration way beyond the first days of school. Maybe it’s not so surprising.
“Kids aren’t coming off the summers we used to have, with one or two books for summer reading,” says Beth Dorogusker, an adolescent psychologist in New Jersey and New York City. “Instead they’re doing an internship, (on) a sports travel team, building homes in a foreign country or practicing for standardized testing.”
The academic year can bring even more demands.
“It’s a perfect storm these days,” Dorogusker says. Combine high-pressure academics and super-competitive sports with looming college entrance, and a high schooler hefting his backpack can feel like Atlas hoisting the world.
Now add the constant blitz of social media, where your teen sees everyone else happy, successful and out having a great time with friends.
High schoolers face “a powerful cocktail of worry,” agrees Ann V. Klotz, head of Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Social anxieties about friends and romances compound anxiety about grades and college. Plus, a teen who does something dumb can expect it to be instantly photographed and widely shared.
Some cues that parents should watch for, say experts:
Internalizing via insomnia, change in eating patterns, excessive headaches or stomachaches.
Externalizing via activities such as drinking, partying, hours of video games or binge-watching an entire television series.
That last one might surprise you.
“With binge-watching, you enter and live in a world that’s friendly and relaxed, where no one’s stressing over exams,” Dorogusker says. “If your child’s doing a lot of that, pay attention.”
But it’s the duration of a problem behavior that merits notice: “If teens can’t sleep one night or have a headache because they’re worried, that’s normal,” Dorogusker says. But if you see an ongoing shift in your child’s behavior, pay attention.
Here are ways parents can help, say Dorogusker and Klotz:
Manage your own anxiety. The world won’t end if your teen doesn’t make the varsity team, get into a top college or land the lead in the play. Likewise, don’t echo your child’s reactions. Being a parent means helping teenagers negotiate struggles and manage failure. Parents who freak out when their teens are anxious just rev up the cycle, Klotz points out. Instead, help your child come up with a plan. If she doesn’t make the soccer team, for example, help her find another place in town to play.
Limit your online checking of grades to once a week or less. A single C does not spell disaster.
Don’t email the teacher. Guide your teen to find out what he or she didn’t understand that led to a disappointing test score, or whether extra credit is an option.
Reassure your teen there are many good colleges, and many ways to make it in this world.
Help them normalize feelings of anxiety, of feeling happy or sad, instead of comparing their moods with what they see on social media.
Limit teens’ digital life. They need to leave the phone on the table until homework is done. Shut down their computer by midnight.
Don’t forget to encourage ample sleep. Amelia Mundell, a high school senior in Bellingham, Washington, says students can forget what it’s like to not be tired. “Everyone’s got this cloud of stress around them. No one’s immune,” she says.