Heading back to school can be stressful in any year. But this year, with teen anxiety and depression at all-time highs, it’s especially important for parents to have a toolkit of back-to-school tips. Moreover, many teens are returning to an in-person classroom after months of remote schooling, which means they are especially nervous about going back to school.
With that in mind, here are some healthy coping strategies that can help the whole family adjust to the school routine with less stress.
Build a resilience toolkit.
Resilience is our ability to bounce back from difficult events or emotions—like those most everyone has experienced over the past 16 months. The more resilient we are, the more quickly and easily we’re able to return to a stable and positive mindset—and even to learn from the challenges we’ve faced. Fortunately, there are ways to build our resilience.
Here are the four essential elements of a “resilience toolkit.”
Optimism: Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson found that resilient people don’t get bogged down in negative thinking. Her research found that maintaining a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions builds resilience. We can improve our ratio by learning to pay more attention to positive events. Parents can help teens practice focusing on what went well in their day instead of what went wrong.
Strengths: Teens have natural strengths and talents, and they can use them to address obstacles that arise. For example, if they’re good at logical thinking, they can use reason to solve a problem. If they’re creative, they can use that ability to find their way around a roadblock. When figuring out how to reduce school stress, parents and teens can talk about strengths and how to active them to calm their anxiety over school.
Gratitude: Researcher Robert Emmons confirmed the link between gratitude and well-being. In one study, people who wrote lists of things they were grateful for had higher levels of well-being. Teens can try writing down three things they’re grateful for at the end of each day.
Connection: Reach out for support in dealing with tough issues. Teens can connect with teachers and mentors they trust, peers who are experiencing the same emotions and can relate to what they’re going through, and perhaps slightly older teens or young adults who can offer advice and reassurance.
Change the way we think about stress.
The stressors of the pandemic have drained both teens’ and parents’ emotional resources. And even as COVID recedes in many areas of the country, the school year will likely bring with it a new set of stressors. The question is: Can we look at stress in a new, more positive way?
Stress can serve as inspiration and fuel to help us get things done. A Harvard study found that people who viewed stress as a motivation for better performance did better on tests and managed their stress better than those who tried to ignore their stress.
However, it’s essential to take “stress breaks”—times when you consciously relax and release tension throughout the day. One of the best back-to-school tips for parents is do these practices alongside their teens. The whole family can take a stress break together, and each individual family member can come up with their own preferred ways to de-stress.
Use the breath to help navigate life challenges.
Using the breath is a back-to-school tip that we can use at any moment, and experience immediate positive effects. Research shows that breath awareness is one of the most effective and accessible tools for self-regulation and calming the nervous system. Breathing slowly, while we focus on each inhale and exhale, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” or “calm and connect” system). Therefore, the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight, flight or freeze” system) takes a step back.
Consciously focusing on the breath helps us navigate the tension that arises in the mind and body when life gets hard. Hence, the breath can be a powerful vehicle for carrying us through challenging emotions and situations. For teens during the school year, that might be a math test, sports practice, a music recital, a first date, or a confrontation with peers. For teens who have social anxiety that has been exacerbated by the isolation of the pandemic, it may be helpful to use conscious breathing several times throughout the day.
2 Breathing Practices to Reduce School Stress
Back-to-school tips for parents and teens should include these two easy breathing practices.
Simple Breath Awareness Exercise
- Sit comfortably, with feet on the floor, eyes closed and hands relaxed and resting on your thighs.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. As your lungs fill, let your chest and belly expand. You might try counting up to five, seven or whatever feels comfortable. Or focus on a phrase, such as “Breathing in calm” or simply “Breathing in.”
- Breathe out slowly through either nose or mouth, whichever feels more natural. You can count during the exhalation, making sure the exhale is as long or longer than the inhale, or use a phrase, such as “Breathing out calm” or simply “Breathing out.”
- If you get distracted, bring your mind back to focusing on the breath.
- Repeat for several minutes.
- Notice how you feel. Is your body more relaxed than before you started? Is your mind calmer?
Square Breathing Exercise
- Sit comfortably in a chair, with your feet on the floor and hands in your lap.
- Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of four, allowing the air to fill your belly.
- Hold the breath in for a count of four.
- Exhale slowly through the mouth for a count of four.
- As you breathe, visualize a healing blue or white light washing over your body. Finally, hold the breath for a count of four.
- Repeat the sequence for four minutes.
- Ideally, repeat the exercise for four minutes, four times a day.
- Consequently, practicing Square Breathing several times daily will help teens become calmer and more relaxed.
One of the most important back-to-school tips: Communicate with your child.
Another critical back-to-school tip for parents who want to know how to reduce school stress: Talk to your teen! During the hustle and bustle of the school year, real communication can fall by the wayside. It’s hard enough to keep each other updated on the logistics, not to mention having meaningful conversations.
Especially as teens recover from this difficult time, staying attuned to their needs is essential. An ongoing, meaningful connection between kids and parents is one of the most powerful factors in supporting teen mental and physical health. That means communication in which teens feel free to open up with parents about what they’re thinking and feeling.
When talking with your teen, it’s helpful to pay attention to their nonverbal communication, as well as what they say. Often, the words that come out of our mouths aren’t expressing the emotions that really underlie them. Pay close attention not only to the content of a conversation, but also to your teen’s body language and tone.
Learn the difference between normal anxiety over school after COVID and teen anxiety disorder.
Feeling nervous about going back to school is a normal reaction given the unpredictability of the last year and a half, particularly for teens who experienced higher levels of social isolation. Back-to-school tips can help both parents and teens navigate the new school year more easily.
Over time, teens’ fears and anxiety over school should abate. If they do not, a professional assessment may be the proper next step. Anxiety resulting from a specific set of circumstances and events, such as the pandemic, has the potential to progress into a teen anxiety disorder.
Newport Academy’s teen treatment programs can help teens recover from the anxiety issues, collective trauma, and situational depression catalyzed by the pandemic. In addition, our programs incorporate specialized academic and life skills components that support adolescents to regain lost ground in terms of social-emotional learning, executive function, and specific subject areas. Contact us today to learn more.
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