The last few weeks of summer can be tough on the whole family. As preparations for the school year go into overdrive, so can teens’ stress and anxiety. The trepidation can come from a multitude of sources: academic pressures, fear of failure and the possibility of bullying are common reasons for adolescents’ anxiety to spike. Constant comparison over social media contributes to the problem, even though filtered summer fun never shows the full reality of how peers spent their vacation time.
Stress can show up in physical symptoms, including headaches, upset stomachs and unexplainable fatigue. Stressed adolescents may eat more or less than usual, withdraw or act out. Stress can manifest as anxiety, irritability and even depression.
Similarly, anxiety can cause insomnia, hyperventilation and gastrointestinal distress. Teens who are struggling with anxiety can feel tired, trembly or have trouble fighting off feelings of doom. Panic attacks are a symptom of anxiety, as are less severe disturbances, like not being able to concentrate.
Left unacknowledged or untreated, anxiety can hinder a student’s social, emotional and academic progress. Without help managing their anxiety, some young people turn to self-destructive solutions, including eating disorders and drug and alcohol use.
If a young person in your life is dealing with anxiety or stress, they are not alone. Research says more than 30 percent of American teenagers have had an anxiety disorder, with girls twice as likely to struggle with anxiety than boys. Studies also show that we are seeing higher rates of anxiety than in the past, especially at school: Six times as many high school and college students had anxiety in 2007 as they did in 1938. In fact, one study showed that 45 percent of high school students say they are stressed “all of the time,” with relationships named as the top stressor.
Unfortunately, while many teenagers face anxiety and stress, not many have the tools needed to tame it. In that same survey, in response to stress, 22 percent say they “talk to friends,” (a positive strategy!) 20 percent say “eat,” (less useful) and 17 percent say “nothing” (not helpful at all).
What actually works? Experts say there are several things parents, caregivers and trusted adults can do to help teens work through back-to-school anxiety:
- Listen. The best thing you can do for an anxious child is clear your schedule, put down your phone and stop talking. Let them tell you how they feel. If and when they ask for feedback, validate both the truth of their feelings and the truth that they are capable of learning how to manage anxiety and stress. You can ask questions to help them identify which situations are leading to the stress and/or anxiety and suggest ways to mentally reframe their circumstances. Ask them how you can help: Can you talk through their schedule, go over school-time expectations, brainstorm organization strategies?
- Know when to say when. It’s important to cheer on your teen as they keep working hard in the face of fear or discomfort. It’s also important to know when to help them set boundaries. If a particular class or activity is triggering enough stress and anxiety to cause health problems, it’s ok to talk about whether quitting or taking a break is a better choice in the long run.
- Encourage healthy habits. There are many activities known to help calm anxiety and stress. Whether you offer a friendly suggestion of a practice that has helped you, invite your teen to join you in one, or lead by example, here are some to try:
- Journal. Name feelings without judging them, through writing, doodling, coloring, etc.
- Make a personal emergency list of easy activities that help distract anxious feelings, such as taking a short walk, calling a friend, playing with a pet, or dancing to a favorite song. It’s different for everybody!
- Get enough sleep and exercise. Sleep is a non-negotiable for mental health, and moving helps regulate moods
- Regularly engage in a mindfulness practice, such as prayer, meditation or breathing exercises.
- Make time to be with supportive people. A positive peer network is a powerful antidote to anxiety and stress.
Is a teen in your life turning to self-destructive behaviors to deal with school stress and anxiety? Talk to one of our admissions counselors today about how Shelterwood can help.
“A back to school stress-management toolkit for teens,” Melanie Greenberg. Psychology Today. 22 August, 2017.
“What to do when your teens aren’t ready to go back to school,” Jim Burns and Ginger Kolbaba. Focus on the Family. Accessed 29 July 2019.
“How back-to-school stress is different in 2018.” Jeanne Croteau. Forbes. 6 August 2018.
“School stress takes a toll on health, teens and parents say.” Patti Neighmond. NPR.com. 2 December 2013.
“Your adolescent: Anxiety and avoidant disorders.” Aacap.org. Accessed 29 July 2019.