How to Help Teens Deal with School Anxiety

Experts predict more school-related anxieties for middle and high schoolers.

At least once a month, Tinley Park mom Megan Rodgers and her 17-year-old daughter, Lexi Lane, share their worries and jot them down on lined Post-it notes. 

Sometimes, they find solutions to an issue and strike a line through it. Other times, for ongoing anxieties, Rodgers and Lane will peel the bullet-pointed list off the stack, paste it to previous notes and stuff them into their “COVID folder,” which also holds Rodgers’ “I got my vaccine” stickers.

With Lane’s senior year approaching after more than a year of virtual classes, Rodgers expects more sticky-note conversations.

“Being at home, she’s had all this comfort all this time. Knowing she’s going to be around people again, I think (her anxiety) is going to continue to build.”

She is not alone. Child psychologists and therapists predict more school-related anxieties for middle and high schoolers as they return to a normal classroom setting this year.

These worries can range from educational gaps and falling behind in athletic skills to sitting in a full-capacity classroom and attending crowded in-person assemblies again.

Helping Your Teen

Preparing for the 2021-22 school year doesn’t end at buying new notebooks and more pens; during the summer, parents should look for signs of anxiety in their teens and tweens, according to Cynthia Cornejo, a clinical psychologist in Chicago Heights.

Notice behaviors such as frequent stomachaches and headaches, she says. Other indicators of anxiety are disruptions in sleep and eating habits; heightened irritability, clinginess or withdrawal; and concentration troubles.

Parents should watch for behavioral changes that match their worries, according to Mary Alvord, a psychologist and a member of the American Psychological Association. If they’re worried about making friends but are still texting and gaming with friends, that’s OK. When their fears force them to avoid making plans, that’s a behavioral indicator.

Rodgers also noted Lane’s recent difficulties sleeping, a common issue for students during a summer break which many say the pandemic inflated. 

A healthy sleep schedule clarifies thoughts and regulates moods and emotions. Without the incentive last year to wake up early for swim practice or catch the bus, students were “sleeping later, rolling out of bed and onto Zoom,” Alvord says.

Approaching the Conversation

At times, encouraging 12- to 17-year-olds to discuss their concerns can be akin to removing sticker residue. If your child exhibits signs of anxiety this summer but won’t talk, create a household culture that encourages open communication about emotions, Cornejo says.

Parenting during these turbulent times doesn’t need to feel like a magic act. After establishing a safe atmosphere for these conversations, parents should ask their teenagers open-ended questions about feelings, thoughts and concerns, Cornejo says.

There are two crucial factors to these conversations: vigilance and validation, says Dawn Livorsi, a therapist at Northwestern University’s Family Institute. While teens might not want to talk about their fears in May, after a few months of encouraging invitations to talk, they might be ready to converse by August.

Alvord seconded the importance of validation. Instead of dismissing or minimizing their concerns, parents should talk through their teenager’s worries with them — including how likely their fears are and what to do — or simply listen.

Sparking the conversation can include reminding your teenagers about their conquered fears of entering kindergarten or middle school or how they caught up after missing a week off school from a cold.

Tell them: “Remember you handled it, and you handled it well,” Northbrook-based psychologist Mark Goldstein says.

Growing Pains

As middle and high schoolers grapple with the coronavirus-sponsored growth in anxiety, depression and grief, there also are developmental achievements students missed in the last year and a half.

Cornejo warns the year-long message from medical experts — wear masks, social distance, limit interactions — coupled with the surging excitement to return to pre-pandemic norms undermines “the mental health ramifications of the last year.”

This summer can be a time to reclaim the months and milestones teens and tweens lost.

“Developmentally, these kids are at a stage where they’re supposed to be out and interacting with one another,” Livorsi says. “They were limited this year to do that. It resulted in feelings of isolation, sadness, anxiety (and) anger.”

If a rising ninth-grader was virtually learning March 2020-May 2021 and is now hurdling to an in-person high school freshman year, for instance, “now they’re going to be 14 doing things they should’ve been doing at 12,” Cornejo says.

Each academic year is engineered not only for physical benchmarks of weight and height percentiles, but they’re also vital years in developing interpersonal and social skills. Learning self-sufficiency is a key milestone for teens and tweens, experts say.

“If you haven’t prepared your child for that shift, they (will) sink that first quarter or semester in school,” Cornejo says.

Alvord recommends parents celebrate achievements, such as graduating middle school or taking the ACT or SAT, no matter how delayed they may be. 

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