Heading back to school can be stressful in any year. But this fall, with teen anxiety and depression at all-time highs, it’s especially important have a toolkit of back-to-school tips for parents and teens. With that in mind, here are some healthy coping strategies that can help the whole family adjust to the school year with less stress.
How to Prepare for Back to School
Back-to-school preparation usually includes shopping for notebooks, a new backpack, and maybe something special to wear on that first day of school. But a checklist of how to prepare for back to school should also include tools for navigating the stressors that come with the transition into the school year.
Here are seven evidence-based back-to-school tips for 2022 that will support both teens and parents.
1. Create a routine to reduce stress during the school year.
Establishing structure and routine is an essential part of back-to-school preparation. After summer vacation, it can be difficult to adjust to a schedule, particularly for teens who have been up late at night and staying in bed all day. To head off the stress of change, start establishing structure before the first day of school. The week before school, consider scheduling some structured activities for teens or the whole family that require earlier wakeup times. If your meal schedule has been topsy-turvy, get back to a more regular routine, with earlier breakfasts and a set dinnertime for the whole family.
2. Remind teens that they can use their natural strengths to make the transition easier.
Teens have natural strengths and talents, and they can use them to address obstacles that arise during the back-to-school transition. For example, if they’re good at logical thinking, they can use reason to solve concrete problems that might come up. If they’re creative, they can use that ability to be creative about back-to-school preparation or how calm their anxiety about school.
3. Help teens focus on the positive, while acknowledging what didn’t go well.
Looking at the positives of a situation can help teens feel better about life in general. While it’s important to avoid toxic positivity, paying attention to the good things in life helps build resilience, according to research. In one study, people who wrote lists of things they were grateful for had higher levels of well-being. For the first week of school, parents can ask teens to share three things that went well that day. They may also want to talk about the not-so-good things, and that’s okay. Validate what didn’t go well, and encourage them to also recognize the positives.
4. Breathing exercises can be a powerful back-to-school tip for teens.
Using the breath is a back-to-school tip for teens that they can activate 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. 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 is triggered at school, it may be helpful to use conscious breathing several times throughout the day.
A Breathing Practice to Reduce School Stress
Doing this practice once a day, or whenever they feel anxious, can be a helpful back-to-school tip for kids of any age.
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.
5. One of the most important back-to-school tips for parents: 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. 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.
6. Learn the difference between normal anxiety about going back to school vs. a teen anxiety disorder.
Feeling nervous about going back to school is a normal reaction, particularly after the unpredictability of the last couple of years. Back-to-school tips can help both parents and teens navigate the new school year more easily. And, 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 returning to school, has the potential to progress into a teen anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:
- Recurring feelings of worry and dread about back-to-school prep or other upcoming challenges
- Irritability and anger
- Focusing on negative thoughts and outcomes, known as “catastrophizing”
- Difficult concentrating
- Loss of appetite or other types of disordered eating
- Trouble sleeping at night
- Stomachaches or headaches without any apparent cause
- Nausea, sweating, and shaking (particularly associated with social anxiety and acute anxiety)
- Panic attacks.
7. Change the way you think about stress.
The stressors of the last two years have drained both teens’ and parents’ emotional resources. And 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.
Treatment for Teen Anxiety
If teens are experiencing ongoing anxiety or panic attacks, or refusing to go to school, it’s time to access additional support. A mental health professional can assess the underlying issues and help teens heal the root causes of anxiety and build healthy coping skills.
Newport Academy’s clinical model provides specialized treatment for teen anxiety. In addition, because teen anxiety in school typically impacts students’ overall growth and development, we support them to regain lost ground in social-emotional learning, executive function, and specific subject areas. Contact us today to learn more.
Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Aug;102(2):454-63.
Neuroscience. 2015 Aug 6;300:128-40.
Prev Chronic Dis 2014;11:140383.
J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012 Aug; 141(3): 417–422.
Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008; 32(1): 20–39.
Physiol Behav. 2008 Jun 9;94(3):309-15.
Am Psychol. 2005 Oct; 60(7): 678–686.