How to Help Tweens & Teens Combat Back-to-School Stress
Remember when getting your kid ready to go back to school was easy? Or — if not exactly easy — it at least felt more cut-and-dried. You get a list of supplies. You buy them a few new outfits. You find out who their teacher is going to be, and where their classroom is located, and voilà: they’re prepared for the new school year.
As kids get into the tween and teen years, though, it becomes more difficult for both of you. Now they have a different teacher, in a different location, for each hour of the day. They may even be dealing with moving to a new school, like when they go from elementary to junior high, or junior high to high school. Their classes become more challenging, their grades hold more weight. They’re in more extracurriculars, which means juggling practices and competitions and performances and keeping track of uniforms and equipment; older kids may even have a part-time job to throw into the mix. And as their social interactions and friend circles become ever more important, their peers’ opinion of them becomes more important too — which can impact everything from the clothes they choose to the classes they take.
All this is to say that the typical back-to-school excitement you saw in them when they were little might look a bit more like back-to-school stress now that they’re older. It’s more stressful for us as parents, too; we no longer have to guide our kids’ every decision and plan, but letting go of those responsibilities comes with its own set of worries. How do we walk the line between giving them guidance and hovering too much? What if they fail?
To make sure our tweens and teens are in a good headspace to start the new school year, SheKnows consulted Ariana Hoet, Ph.D., executive clinical director of On Our Sleeves — an organization dedicated to youth mental health. And she told us that the best way for kids to combat stress — back-to-school or any kind — is being able to rely on a strong and trusting relationship with their parents or caregivers.
“We can’t protect our children from the stress of the world, [but] one of the best protective factors is that relationship that they have with you,” Dr. Hoet tells us. “While stress or bullying may happen, if they have that healthy relationship, it helps them get through with their mental health intact.”
Dr. Hoet suggests having daily check-ins with your child — just simple chats about how life is going, where they have an opportunity to cue you in on things that are stressing them out. These check-ins aren’t always going to reveal a ton of information (because as every parent knows, teenagers think “fine” is a complete sentence), but they let your child know you’re available, that you’re listening — and, most importantly, lay the groundwork for them to feel comfortable coming to you when there is something bigger going on.
“Being able to have a relationship with your child where they do come to you so that you can help them problem-solve and intervene early is important,” Dr. Hoet says. Key phrase: help them problem-solve. Remember, now that they’re older, they want (and need!) your guidance, but it’s also important that they practice figuring out things on their own, too. “Respond in a way that promotes that teamwork,” suggests Dr. Hoet. “Ask them first what they want to do right now for advice before you jump into problem-solving mode as a parent.”
If you’re not already doing these check-ins, prior to back-to-school is a great time to start. This way you can get a grasp on what your kids are excited about, and the things that are bringing them anxiety — and keep a mental tab on how these things are going as the school year progresses. Ask them if they’re nervous about going back to school, and find out why; then, together, you can find solutions to help ease their fears.
Here are a few ways to make your kids feel better about some very common back-to-school stressors, and put them in the best possible headspace for success — not just during the first part of the school year, but beyond.
Clean up their sleep routine.
Anyone can attest that a night of poor sleep can make you feel “blah” the next day; that’s because sleep is closely tied with mental health, and why it’s such an important ingredient for a positive mindset. But as kids get older, bedtimes get later. “National estimates suggest about six in 10 middle schoolers get less than the recommended nine to 12 hours of sleep a night, while about seven in 10 high schoolers clock less than the recommended eight to 10 hours,” reports Catherine Pearson for The New York Times. “And more than one in five adolescents grapple with insomnia, characterized by problems falling asleep, staying asleep or getting sufficient quality sleep (or some combination thereof).”
Start establishing an earlier bedtime at least a week or two before school starts if you can — because it’s unrealistic to think that they can stay up past midnight and wake up past 10 all summer, and then suddenly switch to waking up at six or seven bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Throughout the school year, establish a rule (Dr. Hoet suggests creating a family plan for screen time and social media use) that there’s no screen use past a certain point — say, eight o’clock — because of its enormous impact on sleep quality. “We have truckloads of research showing how destructive technology is to sleep,” clinical psychologist Lisa Damour told The New York Times. We all know you’ve got to pick your battles with tweens and teens, and you likely thought bedtime struggles would end once they were out of the toddler years. But helping your older child establish and keep good sleep hygiene is an important issue to stand firm about.
Help them plan.
Get a calendar, a dry-erase board, or personal planner, then have your child consult the school schedule and write down any important dates. Right now, at the beginning of the year, there likely won’t be many specifics — just the dates of spring break, holiday breaks, and other days off — but it will help get them into the habit of putting things on the calendar. As the year progresses, they can mark the dates of tests, project due dates, rehearsals and practices to get an at-a-glance feel for what they’ve got going on (and if their calendar gets too full, it can become a valuable lesson in balancing commitments). You may need to remind them of this over and over until it becomes a habit, but it’s extremely helpful to spend a minute or two each day taking note of what needs to be done and when. Not to mention extremely nice when they (and you!) aren’t stressed about an event or deadline they “forgot”.
Nix the navigational fears.
If your child is making the leap to a new school — going to high school for the first time, for example — even the calmest kids will most definitely be worried about finding their way around (remember your first day of freshman year? Nerve-wracking!). Make sure to attend any orientations so that your kid has a good chance to scope out the surroundings, but also take the time to remind them that they won’t be the only ones who feel lost (or get lost!), that these fears are completely normal, and that they’ll get the lay of the land in no time … like the generations of kids before them!
Seek out connections at school.
Whether it’s joining a club, playing a sport, or just volunteering for a cause with peers, Dr. Hoet advises that finding ways for your child to connect at school — gaining like-minded friends, mentors, and teammates — will help them feel more fulfilled and help prevent feelings of isolation. “I am a huge advocate of connection when it comes to mental health,” she says. “So I think it’s so important that to support our children, we not only find ways to connect with them through those conversations, through those quality moments together, but also encouraging the connections at school.” Obviously overloading a teen’s schedule isn’t beneficial, but finding a select extracurricular or two that they’re interested in (read: that they want to do, not that we want them to do) will help them build and strengthen the bonds of their social network. Feeling like they’re part of a group is important.
Make sure they know who to turn to.
Another way to ease stress and make your child feel more prepared is knowing who to contact for what. Ask, “Who will you go to when you need help or support at school?” and then assist them in finding the answer. When you get their school schedule, make a master list of their teachers, counselors, and coaches and the contact information for each one. Discuss what types of issues or questions each one could help them address. Encourage them to make it a point to talk to their teachers — even if they just start with a simple daily “hello” and “goodbye” as they enter and exit the classroom, because it’s easier to approach an adult for help if they’ve at least exchanged a few words in the past. Plus, points out Dr. Hoet, school connections are beneficial beyond just clubs and extracurriculars.
“We have found there’s literature that points to a healthy connection between a teacher and a student can predict things like academic outcomes, mental health way into adulthood, their success,” she tells SheKnows. An article from the American Psychological Association (APA) says, “Positive teacher-student relationships — evidenced by teachers’ reports of low conflict, a high degree of closeness and support, and little dependency — have been shown to support students’ adjustment to school, contribute to their social skills, promote academic performance and foster students’ resiliency in academic performance.”
“We want to promote belonging not just in the home, but at school to to build that resiliency in kids, because difficult things will happen,” says Dr. Hoet. “We can’t stop those. But if we built that buffer around them, we can hope that they bounce back a little bit quicker.”
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