How to Handle the Stress & Anxiety of Heading Back to School

This year’s back-to-school season is once again shaping up to be another uniquely-COVID experience for teens and parents. With schools finally moving back to in-person after over a year of remote school, online extracurriculars, hybrid partial-return-to-school models, and constant uncertainty, we don’t have to tell you that this transition might be tough.

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In-person learning has so many social and academic advantages…but it also includes all of the social anxiety of peer interactions, the combined demands of balancing school work with extracurricular activities, and for many a dramatic increase in overall time spent in activities. With the current rise in COVID cases, your child might also be stressed about their health or the uncertainty of what yet another atypical fall may look like. This year’s back-to-school season is likely to bring a great deal of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety to students and families.

Anxiety has been one of the most common health impacts related to COVID for teens, with 19-36% of teens showing new or worsening anxiety during the pandemic. Unfortunately, anxiety tends to intensify in periods of stress and in uncertain or unfamiliar situations. This year’s back-to-school anxiety may look different for everyone. It could be stress about meeting new people and making new friends for a student’s first time on campus despite having “attended” the school virtually last year. It could be rising juniors’ or seniors’ fears that online learning did not adequately prepare them for the rigors of these important years. 

Back-to-school stress is typical. However, it is important to recognize it and address it. Look for ways back-to-school stress could be presenting itself in your child. Some ways stress tends to manifest itself includes:

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and difficulty sleeping.

  • Negative thoughts such as “I’m not going to make any friends”, “I’ll never get into college/get a good job if I don’t do well”, and “My parents will be disappointed in me.”

  • Anxious or depressed mood including agitation, difficulty focusing, and low motivation.

  • Unhealthy coping behaviors such as oversleeping, over or under-eating, substance use, or self-injury.

​If your teen is experiencing anxiety about the transition back to school, encourage them to talk about it with you, or with a trusted support such as their school counselor or therapist. When these worries come up at home, our natural parenting instinct is usually to try to reduce our child’s distress, often by trying to convince our teens not to worry. For example, we might say things like ‘If you work hard in all your classes you will be fine’ or ‘Everybody is feeling nervous about going back!’ While this is fine for occasional worries, if you find yourself reassuring your teen about similar topics multiple times per day, it might be time to switch tactics. Instead of reassuring, validate their emotions such as ‘You sound pretty worried about not getting to be with your friend group at lunch’ and then ask your teen to come up with a possible solution, or to use therapy skills for coping with their anxiety (like ‘riding the wave’ of anxiety, using coping skills, or practicing an exposure). 

As you start to shift back to typical routines, also make sure that you schedule in extra downtime for your teen. Uncertainty is exhausting, and there is a lot of it right now. Let your teen know that you understand they are probably feeling overwhelmed or tired and that you want to give them space for self-care.

Your student might not be experiencing any of the symptoms above; however, they could still be feeling worried and anxious about going back to school. Try starting a conversation with them. Ask, “How are you feeling about going back to in-person school? What are you excited about? What are you least looking forward to?” Or, “You’ve already been through so much change this year, how can I make the transition back to in-person learning easier for you?”

For most students, their schedule is about to be the busiest it has been in over a year. Recognize that and work with them to help address their fears and chart a schedule so they can be successful and manage the stress that comes with returning to school. 

How to Cultivate Positivity to Combat COVID Stress

This post originally appeared on Joon Care.

Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, mother of two teens, and Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer at Joon Care, a teletherapy practice for teens and young adults. Dr. Mezulis specializes in youth mental health and her research has been funded by the NIMH and the APA.


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