I’ll admit it. I have Fall denial. This time of year I want put my head (or toes) in the sand and pretend that summer lasts throughout September, but working with teenagers this becomes impossible. By the last week in August I can feel the change coming, but the change is not the chill I begin to feel when I take my dogs out in the morning. All of sudden my clients’ energy shift in a major way. The chatty ones begin to shut down, the quiet ones start fidgeting, and my sweet teens who didn’t have a care in the world two weeks ago suddenly can’t sleep, find their parents (or me) exceedingly annoying, and my office becomes overwhelmed by sad, anxious,and irritable teens.
It’s time for back to school.
For many adolescents back to school doesn’t conjure up excitement about new clothes, new beginnings, reconnecting with friends, or pumpkin-flavored everything. Instead the start of the school year stirs up feelings of inadequacy, social anxiety, and memories of past disappointments, poor choices, or peer rejections. Changes in routine and transitions are hard for almost everyone, and for many teenagers, the return back to school is met with dread.
Supporting teen sons and daughters through times of stressful transitions can be really challenging, especially since they often reject parents’ attempts to help. Below are several suggestions on how to ease the anxiety and support your teen (and yourself!) in surviving the back to school stress.
Maintain routines whenever possible. Humans are creatures of habit because routines are extremely regulating and comforting. Most people have certain times they complete tasks or ways in which those tasks are completed, but summer often throws those completely off and trying to reinstate the school routine can feel nearly impossible. I challenge you to identify at least 3 family routines that can be stay in place, or be put into place in order to establish emotionally regulating routines. Some examples of regulating family routines include:
Having dinner at the same time each night
A weekly family game night or movie night
Scheduling times for homework, turning off electronics, or down time
Consistency regarding everyone's weekday and weeknight curfew.
Encourage plenty of sleep and consistent eating habits. Your teen probably spent most summer nights up late snapchatting and now has to get up at 5am to make it to school. They are TIRED and cranky. Implementing strategies to return to good sleep habits is so important. Some teens are able to manage their phones and internet access independently in a positive way, while others need parental support to set limits about phone and internet use at night. If you don’t already have rules at your house about electronic useage, you should consider them. Teens can’t always self regulate electronic use growing up in a world of immediate gratification and need adults to set limits to help them learn and internalize the importance of moderation, and getting to bed at a reasonable time.
Get them involved! Having an activity that brings your son or daughter joy, purpose, and feeling of competency outside of the academic setting will help them balance insecurities they may have in the classroom or hallways at school. Extracurricular activities also promote positive social skills and increased independence. Many of these activities, like sports teams, have their own built in routines, such as frequency of practices, order of activities during practices or games, and community building rituals such as cheers that naturally alleviate stress. Some teens don’t have a particular passion or interest already, so encourage curiosity and exploration. It’s okay if their next activity isn’t their favorite as long as they give it a try.
Provide space for your son or daughter to vent about school related stress without pressuring them. Who hasn’t been met with an “okay” or “fine” when asking a teenagers how school is going? It can be infuriating, especially when you know it was clearly not “okay” or “fine.” But the thing is, very few teens are going to open up with adults about school stress if they feel forced into it. Ask your teen how their day was but if they don’t take the bait, follow up with an invitational statement, like “I’ll be downstairs if you feel like telling me about it later” or “let me know if you wanna chat.” Another strategy is to create opportunity for your teen to open up by spending time together that does not involve talking about school. This could be getting dinner together or a simple car ride. One of a therapist’s most valued tools is silence. Awkward for all, but eventually (and this can mean hours, unfortunately), teens typically start talking and when they feel as though they are the ones initiating the conversation, they are more likely to engage in open, honest communication with their parents.
Remember- the beginning of school is tricky every year, but hopefully soon your teen will be distracted by a new crush, a favorite class, or the holiday season. New routines will start and the transitional anxiety will begin to fade. However, if you notice that your child's depression, anxiety, or stress level is sticking around or getting worse, consider consulting with a professional.