Back-to-School Anxiety: Helping Teens and Tweens Cope

Teenage Girl with AnxietyBack-to-school can be a time of great joy for parents, but not so much for some teens and tweens. Ever think back to your first day of school? Were you nervous? Excited? Anxious? Optimistic? Most of us can recall a wide range of emotions during the annual trek back to school, especially in the middle school and high school years. Chances are, one of your least favorite emotions was anxiety.

Some level of anxiety is normal at any age when starting something new. Even children who enjoy school can get a case of the back-to-school jitters. Anxiety and self-consciousness can become especially high for adolescents in general. But for some, anxiety becomes a huge source of stress that may even affect the whole family. These adolescents may have what is described as social anxiety disorder or SAD. SAD affects roughly 7% of the population for those under 18 and rates are higher for females than males, often starting around the age of 13. Among childhood disorders, SAD is one of the most common.

How Can Parents Know When Their Child’s Anxiety Reaches Concerning Levels?

What to look for:

  • Excessive concern about performance at school, sports, or similar activities. A child anxious only in settings where she must be evaluated may have “performance anxiety.”
  • Fear of scrutiny when not being scrutinized.
  • Consuming thoughts, he or she will act in a way that will lead to embarrassment, offense, or rejection.

Aren’t All Teens Self-Conscious?

Many teens will have bouts of self-consciousness connected with important events, like the first day of school, or a big exam, for example, but these times are rare and short-lived. Parents should take heed when fears and avoiding behaviors persist for more than 6 months, anxiety is provoked in almost every social situation, is out of proportion to the situation at hand, and interferes with the teen’s normal functioning at home, school, or other important activities.

How do we know it when we see it?

Parents should look for “avoiding” or “clingy” behaviors, such as hiding to avoid interactions with others, refusing to attend parties, or declining invites from friends. Look for visible signs of fear, including perspiration, trembling, blushing, or clinginess, in social situations. Other signs are not so obvious. Teens can become adept at hiding their anxiety to avoid any unwanted attention about it. For these teens, families should be on the lookout for more subtle behaviors:

  • Over-preparing for an event
  • Choosing to participate only in events that require little social interaction
  • Not speaking, or speaking in a low volume, in public settings
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Stiff body language

In more extreme cases, teens may show a complete refusal to go to school or become hostile when asked about school.

Do’s and Don’ts for Families with Socially Anxious Teens

  • Do contain your own anxiety. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Studies show behind every anxious teen, there is usually an anxious parent. Childhood anxiety feeds off parental anxiety.
  • Do show loving concern or excitement about your teen’s social life but be aware when your behavior crosses the line into anxiety-inducing control. What may seem like a harmless show of parental support to you, the teen may be experiencing as a source of anxiety. Asking a question or two is one thing. A barrage of questions (“are you nervous,” “have you gotten your schedule yet” “do you think you’ll make friends?”) can be daunting to an already nervous teen.
  • Do separate your own unresolved struggles with school from your child’s social experiences. Let your teen have his or her own experience.
  • Do parent your whole child. Teens with social anxiety are often highly intelligent with natural abilities in specific areas, such as music, sports, and many creative fields. They often possess leadership qualities, such as independent thought and emotional intelligence. While directly addressing the anxiety, try not to ignore other meaningful aspects of your teen’s life.
  • Do commit to anxiety-free zones, where you and your teen can bask in the ordinary and amazing simplicities of everyday life. Doing so boosts well-being, lowers anxiety, and reinforces your teen’s sense of competency and self-worth.
  • Don’t restrict time with friends unnecessarily. At this age, a teen’s friends can be like a home base, easing anxiety. Even teens with social anxiety likely have 1 or 2 friends they consider close. Time with these friends can build your teen’s ability to take on challenging social situations.
  • Don’t lose connections with special friends. If your child has lost touch with friends, or will attend a different school, try to reconnect or keep the connection, even if it means using technology (e.g. texting, video calls). Time with friends can help ease fears and lend support in a way only friends can.
  • Don’t seek to control every aspect of your son or daughter’s life. Talking for your teen when she is being addressed in conversation, being overly dismissive of your teen’s opinions, or making decisions about each moment of his day, is a habit for some parents. But science shows a direct link between parent “over-control” and teen anxiety. Learn to gradually give your teen age-appropriate authority over certain areas of his or her life.
  • Do consider hosting a homework/study session or other gathering for your teen’s friends, new and old, with a nice supply of pizza or favorite foods. A dose of laughter and fun with friends can improve your teen’s outlook about school fears. But don’t forget to let your son and daughter share control in the planning!

Why seek help?

While it may go away on its own, oftentimes anxiety persists throughout adulthood. Left unchecked, childhood anxiety can develop into substance use problems, adult mood and anxiety disorders, suicidality, and become a lifelong disruption to your child’s adult work, home, and social life. Anxiety is highly treatable. Therapy goals may include learning coping skills and new ways of thinking about fearful events. Many families see benefits in just a few sessions. Seek help early.

How to seek help

If your teen suffers from anxiety for more than 6 months and wants to learn ways to manage it, consider working with a family therapist. Therapists trained as MFTs (marriage and family therapists) are specially equipped to work with teens and their family members to bring about lasting change. Family-based treatment is considered highly advantageous and effective for treatment of teen anxiety. Finding a family therapist can be as easy as using an online directory of therapists like PsychologyToday.com or GoodTherapy.org, checking with your primary care provider or insurance carrier.

Anxiety can take a toll on a teen’s life, affecting important years of development, special memories, and social relationships...but it does not have to. Find out what your teen can do to get away from social anxiety and get more of the life they want!

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