Helping teens cope with back-to-school anxiety

If you have an adolescent or teenager who is showing signs of anxiety about going back to school, there are steps you can take to help ease the transition.

The school year has begun. If you have an adolescent or teenager who is showing signs of anxiety about going back to school, there are steps you can take to help ease the transition.

“Anxiety in teens is very common,” said Stephen K. Johnson, M.D., child psychologist and pediatrician with Norton Children’s Hospital Medical Group – Springhurst. “In any given year, 10 to 30 percent of teens meet criteria for an anxiety disorder.”

How do you know if your teen is experiencing anxiety? The best way is to talk to her about how she is feeling. Rather than simply asking a teen whether or not he is worried about the upcoming school year, ask open-ended questions such as, “What are you most worried about in the new school year?” or “Tell me your three biggest concerns.” Discuss each of the worries and together explore possible solutions.

It’s important that children have the opportunity to talk about what is bothering them, whether with their friends, their parents or other adults. If a child avoids discussing concerns entirely, there’s a risk that he or she may try to prevent anxious feelings through self-medication or by skipping classes.

“Negative coping strategies just make things worse,” Dr. Johnson said. “In many instances, truancies [skipping school] are caused by school phobia and/or social phobias.”

Most kids worry about how they are perceived by others.

“Anxiety in itself is part of life,” Dr. Johnson said. “But when it interferes with day-to-day functioning, that’s when it becomes a problem. If your child avoids leaving the house, has concerning changes in behavior or appearance, or starts withdrawing from friends and family, that’s a good time to take him to his pediatrician or a psychologist/therapist.”

Can a professional help?

“For mild anxiety disorders, teenagers are likely to benefit equally from either talk therapy or antidepressant medications,” Dr. Johnson said. “If the anxiety is more problematic, the combination of therapy and medication produces the best results.”

Without treatment, anxiety can continue into adulthood.

“Anxiety can be debilitating,” Dr. Johnson said. “Increased levels of anxiety can result in academic underachievement, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

Need a pediatrician?

There are Norton Children’s Medical Group practices throughout Louisville and Southern Indiana.

If your child is suffering from anxiety about the new school year, here are some steps to help lessen it:

  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep and eats a balanced diet.
  • Take your child to visit his or her school, meet teachers, go into the classrooms and travel the route from home to school.
  • If academics are a concern, begin to address difficulties early in the school year. Set up a daily homework time and location and establish expectations that screen time (TV, computer, tablet, cellphone, video games) only occurs after all homework is complete.
  • Review how your child handled previous school beginnings. Encourage your child to describe what he or she did that helped the year start off well in the past, or what changes could be made to prevent previous rough starts.
Nobody likes me

Most of us want others to like us. This is important to teens in particular. But the fact is, not everybody is going to like you, and teens need to learn how to be OK with that reality.

“Kids who worry a lot tend to catastrophize situations and have thoughts such as, ‘nobody is going to like me,’ or ‘everybody is going to notice my new pimple,’” Dr. Johnson said. “In reality, teens can expect that at every school there will be several classmates who say and do mean, hurtful things, but the vast majority of classmates are kind and supportive, especially outside of group settings.”

Dr. Johnson suggests role-playing with your child. Propose a scenario to your child: Suppose someone comes up and makes fun of your appearance. What could you do? What do you think would happen if you did that?”

Dr. Johnson’s advice for that child: “Try the best you can to not respond. Ignore the person. Don’t take it personally. The more you react, the more likely it will continue. The goal is to not let the person know it’s bothering you. Surround yourself with supportive friends and be willing to seek adult assistance from parents, teachers or counselors if the teasing is intolerable or abusive.”

What role does social media play in all this?

“Social media is so common,” Dr. Johnson said. “It can be useful in the fact that it allows teens to realize that they are all in the same boat in terms of worries about starting school, grades, big tests, etc. However, if a child is spending hours and hours on social media and becoming stressed about how many ‘likes’ they’re getting, that’s a problem and parents may need to intervene. I recommend limiting screen time to two hours per day.”