Back to School Anxiety: Coping Skills for Your Teen

If you’re noticing your teen is a little edgy lately or seems less than keen to talk about school they may be struggling with ‘back to school anxiety’. The usual pre-jitters and mix of excitement and nervousness of going back to school could be prompting thoughts like these for your teen:

  • Who will I be in class with?
  • What if I get that teacher again?
  • I can’t wait to see my friends again!
  • I hope I will get good grades.

On top of this, teens have spent  the last year and half contending with  alternative forms of schooling in response to the pandemic – online, on and off in-person (with masks, shutdown sports, etc.), hybrid between online and in-person, etc. For some teens, this adds an extra layer of worry.

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If your teen spent the last year learning online , they may be wondering what it will be like to go back to school like “normal”. They may be thinking,  “Do I even want to go back in person??”

This year may be especially hard for teens if they struggle with social anxiety and enjoyed the online aspect of schooling. On top of the regular ‘back to school’ worries, your teen may  be thinking:

  • What if it’s really hard?
  • What if I’m behind?
  • What if it’s weird to not be wearing a mask?
  • What if we have to wear masks again?
  • What if things shutdown again? 
  • What if they do cohorts again and my friends aren’t in the same class as me?
  • What if I don’t like it?

Sometimes teens don’t have an exact grasp on the specific thoughts but their worries  manifest physically. You might notice complaints of physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, general flu like symptoms with no illness related causes, etc. You may also notice changes in behaviours – more irritability, sleep disruptions, etc. 

Worries about going back to school – especially this year – are to be expected. But that doesn’t mean your teen has to white knuckle through it. 

Here are five anxiety coping strategies you can implement to help your teen transition back to class as smoothly as possible:

Anxiety Coping Skill #1

Breathing can be a secret weapon for your teen. Dialling into their breathing can help activate their rest and relax system (parasympathetic nervous system). This sets off a domino effect of calming. 

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There are various breathing techniques you can try. Sheryl Ankrom, MS, LCPC shares eight different breathing exercises you can try here. Square breathing, or 4×4 breathing is one I find works well, and can be done anywhere anytime – including on the way to the school, in the hallways, and even in class. The Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto shares a really great video on how to do this exercise here.

Whichever exercise your teen chooses, I recommend going through it at least 4 times to allow their nervous system to catch up.

Breathing exercises aren’t for everyone. If your teen can’t focus on their breathing, or doesn’t enjoy it – try having them focus on some of their other senses. Here are a few ways they can do that:

  • Look around the room and (in their mind) name objects they can see
  • Pick a colour and try and spot it as much as possible
  • Listen for sounds near or far
  • Name one thing from all 5 senses – something they can see, hear, smell, feel and taste

The key is to bring awareness to the present moment and be less hyper focused on the anxiety.s.

Anxiety Coping Skill #2 

We all have objects in our lives that immediately bring comfort. They serve as relaxation prompts. It can be helpful for your teen to have an object like this with them as they begin the new school year. Here are some ideas, or things I have seen work well:

  • Favourite piece of jewelry

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  • Extra comfy sweater
  • Stone/crystal around their neck, or tucked in their bag
  • A note/quote/message on their phone
  • Putty
  • Favourite playlist on their phone (if permitted)
  • Doodle a small heart on a knuckle
  • Fidget ring around their finger

Having something that reminds your teen of comfort and calm will cause their brain to put out some chill alpha waves.

Anxiety Coping Skill # 3

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Encourage your teen to find at least one person they can rely on that has got their back – a coping buddy. They can have more than one of course! It might be a teacher, guidance counsellor, friend, sibling, etc. Someone they can seek out and connect with when needed. This person can provide a nice distraction, or some comfort.

If your teen really can’t think of anyone that is accessible at  school, see if you can find someone remote who can be available for a call or text during an anxious moment – you, their auntie, etc.

 

Anxiety Coping Skill # 4

Use the F.E.A.R. technique. This stands for False Evidence (or Emotions) Appearing Real.

Anxiety can trick your teen’s mind to make them believe they are small and incapable in the face of the problem or thing they fear. The F.E.A.R technique is a way to bring balance in the other direction – with anxiety being small and your teen being big and capable.

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Step One: Identify the worry (fear) – e.g. ‘I’m worried that I won’t be in the same class as any of my friends.”

Step Two: Dig deeper – what would happen if your friends weren’t in your class? What’s anxiety telling you? – e.g. ‘I will have no one to talk to all year. I will be lonely.’

Step Three: Flip it around – what could you do if your friends aren’t in your class? How could you respond? How could you solve this? – e.g. ‘Could be a total loner and not talk to anyone all year, 

I guess I could make new friends, I could find my friends during breaks, I could join a club or something at lunch, I could ask to be switched classes, I could talk to the person sitting next to me, etc.’

This technique gives the worry clear words and takes your teen down that FEAR acronym. It lets them know that even if the scary thing does happen, they have a lot of control and choice to do something about it! 

Anxiety Coping Skill # 5

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Create a plan and a routine so your teen knows what to expect. It is helpful to focus on what is in your teen’s power to control (their routine) and what is not.

A routine for school starts the night before – with a good amount of sleep, taking time to relax before bed, etc.Encourage your teen to include some things in their routine they enjoy.

You can also help your teen plan ahead for when they get to school – who will they meet up with? Do they know which classes they are in? What time does school start and end?

Having a plan around things that your teen can actually control (e.g. their responses, behaviours, what thoughts they tend to, etc.) can help quell some of that anxiety. 

Things to Make Note Of

Your teen is not alone in their anxiety – going back to school can be an anxiety-inducing experience in ‘normal’ times. Never mind the times we are in now! Let them know they are not the only ones.Ask them about their back to school thoughts.

What are they most stressed/worried about? 

Another thing you can do is focus on the things they are looking forward to. Get them to pay  attention to the friends they may get to see again, the school club they will join, etc. 

Anxiety can be a big deal but it doesn’t have to take over yours or your teen’s life – Share this blog with a parent of a teen and spread the support! 

The Happiness Pill Program is a 6-month teen life coaching program that supports teens to shift beyond anxiety, depression, and overwhelm and into confidently living the life they want by providing ongoing support. There is a built-in parent program and community to support you, too. Get on the path to freedom from teen anxiety here.

Love,

Chantal 


Chantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to info@pyramidpsychology.com or DM us via Instagram or Facebook. 

My Teen Doesn’t Have A Lot of Friends – Should I Be Concerned?

I’ve had parents mention some concern about their teens only having 1 – 2 friends… Is this something to be concerned or worried about?

Having friends and changes in friendships are a very normal process for teens and their identity development – at different times we all have different people in our lives. Teens are going through that process right now, figuring out what type of people they want in their lives.

There are  some factors that may lean your teen towards wanting a small friend group. For example, if they are a little more introverted – or have introverted qualities – or maybe they feel most connected in close, intimate relationships.

I remember my middle school self – I got along well with a lot of my peers, but I really just had this one friend – she and I spent a ton of time together. She had this electric keyboard and we would hang out all weekend and write parody songs together. We had a blast! I just had the one close friend, really. And that was great for me.

So I think it depends on where your teen is at with having just one to two friends. If those two friendships are really close, good friendships, that makes a big difference.

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Questions to Ask

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when it comes to your teen’s friendships:

  • Does our teen enjoy spending time with their friend(s)?
  • Is your teen saying or are you noticing behaviours indicating they may want more friends?
  • Do they seem satisficed with their friend groups?

Whether your teen has lots of friends or just a few, there are other elements that are more important.

Other Things At Play

It’s important to recognize if this is a preference thing, or if there is something else at play. 

Does your teen need to work on social skills? Confidence?

Consider how this might be getting in their way of making friends. If these skills are missing or underdeveloped, it can be really challenging for teens to make or keep friends.

It is important not to assume here. Ask your teen about their friend group – get to know how they see their friendships and what they value about them. In lending a curious ear, you may learn more about whether this is a preference, or their way of bei

ng, or if there are underlying difficulties or challenges that are preventing them from making more friends? If you discover your teen is really shy and strugglin

g to with talking to others, check out this blog I wrote just for them: How to Get Past The Shy: 4 Conversation Tips for Teens.

Something to Think About

One thing to consider is asking yourself if your concern is something that is coming from a projection of your experience growing up, or something you experienced as a teen. It can be helpful to practice a little self-reflection on your own friendships growing up and how that might impact the way you view your teen’s friendships. It might also lend itself to having empathy for your teen’s friendship woes as they come up. What were your friendships like? What were some things that were difficult with relationships?

Check-in with yourself and see if there’s a bit of parallel with your own experiences when you were younger.

Love,
Chantal


If you found this post helpful, pass it on by emailing a friend or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook – thank you!

Chantal Côté, R.Psych, Pyramid Psychology – helping older children, teens, and young adults learn how to build bulletproof mindsets.

To connect, send an email to info@pyramidpsychology.com