It’s not always the most wonderful time of the year. School has either started or will in a few days depending on where you live and I can feel the collective stress, teeth clenching and shoulders tensing. Even a summer free of school doesn’t slow the looming countdown or stress that lies just below the surface.
Pretending your teen is ‘better’ or praying it won’t happen again this year won’t work if they’re masking to please you or their teachers even though their anxiety rises at the thought of school, peer pressure, bullying, academic performance demands and that Social Studies teacher who freaks them out.
Here we go again
‘I don’t feel well’
‘My stomach hurts’
‘I have a headache’
The first few days were ok, and then the litany of physical symptoms start again…Maybe it’s in the evening before bed or maybe it’s the morning routine that kicks it off, along with the reasons your teen needs to stay home from school. You’re certain they’re not sick and want to help calm their nerves before this gets blown out of proportion.
When you ask your teen what’s wrong, it goes something like this.
If they don’t know why they’re feeling anxious about school, doesn’t that mean they’re just lazy and trying to pull one over on you?
Rarely. Here’s the proof
45% of high school students report experiencing a great deal of stress on a daily basis, and 83% cite school as a significant source. Over 27% feel extreme levels of stress during the academic year, while only 8% believe they are effectively managing that stress. Girls experience higher rates than boys with 38%, compared to 26% – Gintux (Aug. 2023)
Data collected from Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2019 through the National College Health Assessment (NCHA II) revealed large proportions of students reporting their past-year stress level to be “more than average” (45.6%) or “tremendous” (15.3%). Additionally, many students reported feeling hopeless (63.6%), overwhelmed (88.2%) and anxious (68.9%). – Sage Journals (July 2022)
Even before the pandemic, anxiety and depression were becoming more common among children and adolescents, increasing 27% and 24% respectively from 2016 to 2019. By 2020, 5.6 million kids (9.2%) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems in the United States. – Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy, Center for Children and Families (March 2022)
Even if your teen can’t articulate what’s causing their anxiety, statistics show the growing epidemic of mental health challenges in youth today and how the pressure to perform at school is a significant contributing factor.
Here’s my 4 tips to support your teen through anxiety and make this school year different.
1) Believe them
When your teen shares physical or emotional symptoms of anxiety, believe them rather than belittle them with labels like dramatic, oversensitive, attention seeking, liar, etc. If your teen is in distress and feels safe enough to share that with you, that’s a good sign and much better than suppressing or hiding their pain.
Research shows that empathy is a simple and powerful tool to help regulate emotions and calm the physiological responses to those feelings. Empathy also builds trust and connection, so your teen is more likely to continue sharing what’s going on for them. The key to remember is that empathy DOES NOT require you to agree with your teen or have had a similar experience, nor does this mean you’re coddling them and raising a snowflake! When your teen can articulate and process emotions, they’re empowered to self-regulate as they become adults with healthier coping strategies through hard times.
i.e. “It’s ok to feel anxious. You’re doing your best with a lot on your plate” “It’s ok to feel anxious when you’re stressed out about (your exam, try outs, getting good grades, etc.)” “Anxiety doesn’t make you weak or broken. It’s a response to building stress and I imagine school adds to that.” “Anxiety sucks and I know you’re doing your best with everything on your plate.”
3) Do your work
When your teen share’s their anxiety but can’t answer why they feel that way (‘I don’t know’ or ‘just something’), it can feel frustrating because your reaction is to fix them and the source and move on. Over time, your stress escalates because they ‘won’t tell you why’ they feel this way, and you become critical because ending their pain seems the only way to calm yours. That’s called codependency and it’s your work. Your teen is trying to find a safe way to feel emotions trapped in their body. They want to feel, not be fixed, and often that means sitting with them, breathing, and being present, even when it’s uncomfortable for you.
4) Create perspective
Rather than invalidating your teen with statements like, “It’s not that bad”, or “It could be worse”, that shut them down and quickly erode safety and connection by forcing your perspective on them, help them create their own using a tool called bookending (only after your teen is regulated and symptoms have subsided to a reasonable level).
i) Ask your teen what the worst-case scenario is of their fear and let them make it into a full blown horror movie with no limits as you listen with compassionate curiosity.
ii) Then ask your teen what the best-case scenario might be and again, encourage them to make it as big and detailed as the last.
iii) Lastly, ask your teen what’s most likely to happen and let them land in their own middle ground without judgement. Ask if they’d like any support to create that (NO is an ok answer) and move on. Accessing your teen’s creativity can be a huge asset in creating a healthier perspective that invites them into other possibilities and empowers them to be part of a change they want, not one that feels forced on them.
Anxiety isn’t the end, it’s signpost.
And when paid attention to with proven tools and support, it can be a catalyst for greater emotional intelligence and body awareness which are keys to increasing confidence and resilience long term.
Ready for my proven and simple tools to start lowering school anxiety and stress in your home?
My Challenge – 5 Days to a Better Relationship with Your Teen starts again on September 11th and registration Closes Monday at noon PT.
Click below to get your spot!
Let’s do this together,