Many students are back in school, and let’s admit it — this can be a nice change. Having to navigate work while helping them with virtual school was one of the pandemic’s many challenges.
But at the same time, it’s hard to not worry about their well-being. Not only their physical health, with COVID risks, but their emotional health, too. Teens may stress about extracurriculars, their resume, getting up earlier, reemergence anxiety, and more. We’re living in a time when anxiety is high for many people and for many reasons.
Experts explain the stress of returning to in-person schooling
Students are probably feeling the pressure that comes with school, and they may not know how to handle it.
“The desire to be accepted among peers and the pressures that social media puts on our students can increase levels of anxiety as well,” said Morgan Champion, the manager of counseling for Connections Academy Schools.
“Helping students know what to expect and walking them through potential situations can help them feel prepared for what they can expect at school.”
Students also have to learn their new routine and what teachers will expect of them, specifically, post-pandemic.
“They need to get back into a new routine, which is true every year, but this one even more so due to the extended time that students were learning from home,” said Kristi Beroldi, LPC and assistant clinic director at Thriveworks in Reston, VA.
“These students have nothing to go off of; they aren’t going back — they are starting fresh and staring into the unknown… They may have to deal with the stress and confusion of having to ‘catch up.’”
To help your teen ease the stress of this change, Champion and Beroldi provided some tips.
Having an anxiety plan
Knowing how to handle an anxious moment can make it less stressful. One piece of this can include mantras.
“Sometimes our anxiety can cause thoughts to spiral and take us down a road of negative self-talk,” said Champion. “In order to get ahead of that, have some positive statements ready for yourself, such as, ‘This seems difficult right now, but I know I can handle this,’ or ‘I am going to take a few deep breaths, clear my head, and try this again.’”
Other parts of your teen’s plan can include talking to a friend or the guidance counselor, squeezing a stress ball, drinking some water, having a snack, or thinking of times when everything turned out OK.
Remembering to breathe mindfully
Breathing practices can also help your teen relax. “It sounds simple, and it is,” Champion said. “Breathing naturally relaxes our brains and bodies, and helps our heart rate return to a normal pace.”
A few breathing exercises that help with stress are deep breathing, inhaling and exhaling for the same amount of time, and relaxing your muscles while breathing.
Turning off social media and doing something positive
Social media — especially apps like Instagram and YikYak — can cause teens to feel insecure about their lives and how they look. Because of this, taking time off social media and doing something more helpful instead can be a great idea.
“Do an experiment with yourself: Put your phone away for a few hours. Journal about how you feel differently, and see if that could be contributing to your current anxiety level,” Champion recommended. “Replacing phone time with a positive activity like taking a hike, spending time with a friend or family member, or doing something for your community can actually ease the impacts of anxiety.”
Shocking your system with a physical sensation
Encourage your teen to do something physical, if they can, in the heat of the moment. “Take a break and go for a short walk if you can, even if it is only to the bathroom,” said Beroldi. “Temperature changes are a good way to shock the system — splash cold water on your face, keep an instant ice pack nearby, et cetera… Pair deep breathing with methodically tensing and releasing your muscles to help you physically relax, and let go of any unconscious tension you may be holding.”
These suggestions are actually a part of TIPP, which is a distress tolerance skill in dialectical behavior therapy. “TIPP” includes temperature changes, intense exercise, paced breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation.
Reaching out to trusted loved ones and tracking anxiety
Additionally, remind your teen of people they can go to when they feel anxious. “Talk about it with a friend, a trusted adult, or a professional,” Beroldi said. “Keep track of anxiety by scaling it from one to ten throughout the day and providing a couple of words of context to help you figure out what is making you anxious.”
By keeping that record, teens can more easily see what their triggers are and communicate them to loved ones.
Preparing for anxious moments ahead of time
When your teen knows an anxiety-provoking situation is ahead, helping them prepare can reduce some of that stress. “If you know you are going into a situation that makes you anxious, prepare! Set up times to take breaks, engage in extra self-care, wear comfy clothes if you’re able, et cetera,” Beroldi suggested.
Other ways parents can support their teens
Lastly, Champion and Beroldi have one main recommendation for parents: nonjudgmental communication.
Champion provided ideas on how to get the conversation started.
“Make sure you are regularly talking and checking in with your teen. Many times, teens hide their anxiety and parents do not realize until things have gotten to an unhealthy level,” Champion said.
“Try to engage them in activities that are fun for them or are tailored to their interests. Having a tradition such as a family game night, a Saturday cooking project, or something you can enjoy together is a great way to have continual conversations and provide a safe space for them to open up.”
Beroldi expanded on how to communicate with your teen when the time comes. “Talk to kids openly and non-judgmentally about what they could be experiencing,” she said. “Normalize their experience, validate them, and make an action plan together of how to help them, including getting them started with professional help if needed.”
To filter through mental health professionals who may fit your teen’s needs (and your budget), check out Psychology Today’s database. It has many therapists, psychiatrists, support groups, and treatment centers to choose from.
While we’ve had to handle a lot of new experiences and challenges during the pandemic, remember you and your teen can support each other and you aren’t alone in your struggle. Tools and skills like those above can help, and you’ve got this!