Starting a new school year under normal circumstances can be challenging — the combination of new routines, workloads and social pressures can be stressful for kids.
But for yet another back-to-school season, students — some of whom are returning to in-person learning for the first time in a year and a half — are also trying to navigate school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some middle school students and high school sophomores are entering buildings they’ve never been in before. College students are setting foot on campuses that may look and feel different than they used to because of COVID-19 protocols.
“I think we see — in particular for middle schoolers and high schoolers — just a lack of connection to school,” Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, tells Yahoo Life. “There is a lot of anxiety and some level of sadness around, ‘Am I even going to like it when I’m there? Because I haven’t been liking school for the past year and a half.’”
But despite the changes and challenges students may face this school year, there are steps preteens and teens — along with their families — can take to reduce stress and anxiety levels.
Social anxieties often run high among teens, perhaps even more so after months of isolation and missed opportunities to connect with their peers. That’s why experts say now more than ever, students need to reach out to others.
“With both high school and college students, I really encourage them to think about making some kind of connection with at least one person in each aspect of your life,” Vanessa K. Jensen, a pediatric psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Life. “If you can sit near them and just make a point of saying ‘hi’ a couple of times, it can give you a little more sense of balance and security.”
Jensen suggests that students join a club, sign up for a sport, or just go study in a student center where other preteens and teens are around. Jensen warns that kids who continue to isolate themselves could find their anxieties escalating quickly, making them feel as if they are invisible. But in reality, these students are not alone.
“Remember that everybody else is in the same boat as you are,” says Jensen. “And most people are as hesitant as you are to reach out. But if nobody takes the first step, it’s never going to happen. So, reaching out — as hard as it is — is extremely useful.”
Everyone finds comfort in different things. It may be a favorite song, a well-worn rock from a beach vacation, a beloved piece of comfy clothing, or a photo of a close friend on a keychain. Kids of all ages need these things, too — small items that can help make them feel safe and calm. “Those little symbols can take on a lot more meaning than we realize,” explains Jensen. “Any little symbol that your kid puts in their pocket, or hangs on their backpack that makes them think, ‘Oh yeah, that was a good day.’”
When students are feeling lonely or stressed, having a self-soothing kit can help ease them into a calmer space. Domingues says it’s important to understand the purpose of these items is not to make the anxiety or stress disappear, but to make those emotions more manageable. “The more you try to make uncomfortable feelings go away, the more frustrated you become,” she explains. “So the goal is to turn down the intensity and embrace a little bit of how you’re feeling. Then you can start to get through the day.”
Use the “raindrop theory”
As a parent, it’s not always easy to know when a preteen or teen is feeling stressed. Questioning a student about their day can be met with one-word answers. So how can parents help their preteen or teen with their anxieties if they don’t even know what their kids are feeling or thinking?
Jensen recommends trying what she calls the “raindrop theory.” It’s a clever way of sprinkling bits of conversation in when the time is right. “When you’re in the car, it is a great time because you’re not looking at each other,” she advises. “That’s a great time to bring up some detail that they brought up in passing — even if it seems like a minor thing, it’s just something to spark the conversation.”
This could include asking about a friend, a teacher or even telling them a silly story about your teenage years. Jensen says that any time parents are able to get the family together at the dinner table, keeping the conversation positive can also help teens open up. “Try to focus on things that were interesting, things that were funny,” says Jensen, “and do not make it a time to drill the kids.”
Set an example
Sometimes the most powerful tool is not what a parent says but what they do. Domingues urges parents to take stock of their own emotions surrounding the new school year. “Teens and young adults — while they may not say this directly to us — they do vibe off a parent or a caregiver,” Domingues says. “So, if we’re coming into the school year anxious and talking a lot about our worries” that can rub off on your children. “How we’re handling our own emotional experience will really be a way of setting the tone for this school year,” says Domingues.
That doesn’t mean parents need to pretend that everything is fine, Domingues explains. It’s normal to be worried as kids head back to school and transparency can go a long way. “Saying that and validating it by saying things like, ‘The year might be weird, and that’s OK. I’m here to talk about it if you need anything,’” suggests Domingues. “That way we’re all speaking the same language and modeling that ability to cope.”
In the meantime, schools across the U.S. are also stepping up by putting kids’ mental health at the top of their priority lists. Arizona, Oregon and Virginia have recently passed bills allowing students to take mental health days. In Utah, kids have access to “wellness rooms” where they can decompress if they’re feeling overwhelmed. Chicago Public Schools — the country's third-largest school district — is investing $24 million in mental health support programs for their students and staff.
“One of the silver linings for me about the pandemic this past year and half has been talking about mental health in a way that’s healthier,” Domingues shares. “We’re all in it together, sort of navigating what’s going to happen next, knowing that we got through this before, and hoping we learned some tricks and tips from the past to make this school year go a bit smoother.”
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