Managing Back-to-School Fears

Summer is winding down and families are preparing to send children back to school. Teens might be feeling a wide variety of emotions, ranging from excitement to anxiety. Whatever your teen might be feeling, it’s always important for parents to validate their emotions and help them cope with any stress.

If your teen is feeling nervous about returning to school, they are not alone! Two-thirds of families report that their children feel concern or anxiety at the beginning of a new school year. Understanding why a teen is scared to go back to school is the first step in addressing their anxiety. Common fears that teens face are:

  • Making new friends
  • Facing bullies
  • Feeling unpopular
  • Finding someone to sit with at lunch or on the bus
  • Developing their identity and/or fitting in
  • Dating issues
  • Fear of rejection
  • Anxiety about school shootings
  • Not being able to understand the schoolwork
  • Getting a bad teacher
  • Pressure to perform academically as they prepare for college

The anxiety that school produces can build up in a teen’s mind. There are quite a few things that parents can do to ease the back-to-school transition:

Be proactive. Make sure that you and your teen attend the school’s Open House or orientation prior to the beginning of school. This will help your teen reunite with friends, meet teachers in advance, and visualize returning to school, which is an excellent way to reduce anxiety. Another way to slide into the new school year is to invite some of the other teens from the school over for an end-of-summer party. This can help reconnect friends and allow the teens support each other for the upcoming school year.

Identify the source of the fear. If you and your teen have good communication, it is very helpful to find out what fears your teen is experiencing. Ask your teen open-ended questions to better understand the reasons for their anxiety.  Understanding the source of the fear will allow you to better determine a way for them to overcome it.

Validate their feelings. Acknowledge their fear (e.g. “I remember feeling that way when I started a new school year”) without overreacting or making fun of it. You don’t want to reinforce their fear by becoming equally anxious, nor do you want to act dismissive or give them the impression that you think they are weak or silly.

Examine scenarios. Many times our fears are fairly irrational. We have a tendency to imagine the worst things happening to us, or we worry excessively over something with only minor consequences. One of the best ways to calm an anxious teen is to explore different scenarios. Start by asking “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” When they explain what they are imagining, you can better address their concern. You can either put their worry in perspective if it doesn’t sound terrible, or you can help them figure out a good response to that worst-case scenario. Then ask, “What’s the most likely thing that can happen?” Again, you can help them develop appropriate responses to situations they may face. To help them remember that positive things are on the horizon, too, you should also ask, “What’s the best thing that can happen?” This process can help your teen feel like they are more in control and ease their fears.

Revisit past success. Remind your teen of other times they felt anxious, and everything worked out, or reframe a negative experience in terms of personal growth. For example, a student who has experienced a panic attack in school in the past might be scared to go back to school because they’re afraid it might happen again. Instead, encourage them to focus on how they recovered from the attack and the tools they learned for dealing with anxiety. In this way, the event becomes a positive experience because it helped them gain mental strength and skills.

Build up their strengths. Remind your teen of their natural abilities and characteristics that can help them deal with challenging situations and events. For example, if your teen has a great sense of humor, remind them that they can rely on that “superpower” to connect with classmates. If your teen is curious, encourage them to use that strength in getting to know someone new or in finding a club that interests them. When teens learn how to leverage their strengths, they feel more empowered to exert control over their circumstances.

Brainstorm challenges. Take the time to reflect on the struggles of the previous school year, and ask your teen how you can best support them. Together, brainstorm ideas for addressing problems before they start. For example, if your teen struggled at math last year, download an app that they can play before the school year begins or hire a tutor to prepare.

Normalize the fear. Remind your teen that they have felt nervous every year before school begins and that all of their classmates are struggling with the same concerns. They are not alone!

Final Thoughts…

A new school year can mean a lot of stress for a teen, as well as for parents. Take some time before school starts to relax and enjoy an activity together. Talk to each other about the school year coming up and reaffirm with your teenager that you are available for support. It’s always easier to handle stress when you know someone is on your side.

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