There is no greater source of stress for most teens than heading back to school.
This anxiety affects kids of all types – from slackers to perfectionists, jocks to prom queens. It is true for kids who struggle at school, get poor grades and have few friends. But it's also true for academically and socially high-functioning kids. September is a major transition for everyone (parents included).
Every teen feels their problem is unique, that no one has ever felt quite like they do. But, I've found that their worries generally fall into three categories (and some teens may worry about all three.)
Even for kids who have had a lot of contact with friends over the summer, particularly over social media, physically returning to school is still a difficult adjustment.
"I am there in person. Walking down the hall. People looking at me. Me looking at them. And I feel they're judging me. How I look. How I act. What I say. I am way more exposed. All the drama that goes on, it goes up a notch."
The bottom line: Being back at school is a very big deal. It brings back all of the extreme self-consciousness that is such a large part of the school experience for teens.
Worries about the future
"Now I'm officially one more year closer to being out of school, when I have to go out in the world and somehow support myself. How am I ever going to do that? Can't I just live in my parents' basement, forever?"
As little kids, the future is far enough away that they feel insulated from it. But with each new school year, that day of reckoning looms closer and closer. Each new school year ratchets up that lurking terror. Just thinking about their future overwhelms them with anxiety. For some teens, one of the appealing things about marijuana is that it can effectively remove that worry and keep their focus in the here and now.
Stress about schoolwork
There's no way around it: School requires you to work. Whether it's a teen struggling to pass, or one who struggles to get all A's, the stress is there. They worry they won't be able to stay on top of it. They worry there'll be too much homework, and that the demands will take over their lives. Some worry that they will give up or not work as much they need to.
"Yes, high school would actually be excellent if they didn't make you work. That's what ruins it."
How can a parent help them cope?
Get them to school. Some teens, for precisely all of the reasons above, don't want to go that first day. They complain of being sick. You want to be very careful how you deal with this. Make sure they truly are sick, because once they start missing school, the difficulties mount. Get them there.
Talk to them. Let them know that you understand that the beginning of school can be stressful. It can seem a little strange, even overwhelming, getting back into a routine, but all kids feel this way. Reassure them that if they do feel apprehensive about it, they are not alone. And questions like, "Are you sure you have everything you're going to need? Everything in your backpack?" They feel this kind of parental fussing is a bit demeaning, but at the same time reassuring. It is not all on their shoulders.
And talk to them about their future. Their plans. Talk about the possibilities of what they might do once high school is over. Talk about more than one option. They may want to fend off planning for the future, but burying it only makes the fears grow worse – and harder to face.
Set a work schedule. Kids hate this. They can be infinitely optimistic about how they really are going to get their act together. Unlike last year.
"Yes, I don't want my parents to make a work schedule for me. I want the freedom to be in charge of it."
Most teens don't want their parents to get involved in scheduling their life. They do all they can to resist it.
"The more my parents try to get me to do my schoolwork, the more I don't do it."
That's actually not true. They may hate it. But your involvement does make a difference – if only to say that there are certain times when they are not allowed to do anything other than schoolwork.
Some kids are good workers and genuinely do not need the guidance. You will know whether you have such a kid. But most do need it.
The start of the school year is stressful for all teens. Be aware of it. Be as compassionate as you can. It is an important time for you to be involved. Even just being a cheerleader can help them get back in the swing of things.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books and runs anthonywolf.com .