- The back-to-school anxiety teenager experience
- School anxiety symptoms
- What causes the back-to-school anxiety high school pupils can suffer?
- How to deal with back-to-school anxiety
It’s normal for your child to feel apprehensive about returning to school. Each new school year brings new challenges, worries and adjustments together with new classmates, teachers and classes. 📆
However, for some children, the impending return to the classroom can loom over them like a cloud that gets darker and gloomier as the new term approaches. They may experience an intense fear of school and constantly worry about having to go back. These kids are suffering from back-to-school anxiety, also called school phobia or school refusal.
We’ll look at some useful techniques you can use to deal with this type of anxiety. But first, let’s look at what exactly it involves.🔍
The back-to-school anxiety teenager experience
When it comes to back-to-school anxiety, high school-age kids can suffer just as much as younger pupils. It doesn’t matter how well they do academically either, they can be struck by school anxiety symptoms for all sorts of reasons.
The NHS has found that up to five kids in every class may experience anxiety and a UK government survey reported that anxiety was the second-most common reason after COVID for school absences.
The problem can get so serious that it ends up affecting both their education and their personal life. It’s important to understand this condition and prevent it from spiralling out of control before your kid’s mental and emotional health gets worse and their academic record starts to suffer.
When it comes to back-to-school anxiety Reddit users offer some moving descriptions of their experience:
“I am so terrified of school. I was practically having a seizure on my way there today because I was shaking so much,” one user wrote.
Another posted that they were already suffering anxiety, but “school just makes it a lot worse”.
“I always remember crying my eyes out before every first day of school because I didn’t wanna go back… I’m just dreading school,” they said.
For Reddit user Zebrasareprettycool, the back-to-school anxiety was made worse by the fear of the panic attacks they expected it to trigger.
“I'm genuinely not ready to go back to school, I don't want to have more anxiety attacks. Pretty meta isn't it? Getting anxious over having an anxiety attack?” they posted.
The pandemic has only made the situation worse. Research by Place2Be and NAHT found that 95% of school staff have seen levels of pupil anxiety rise in the past year.
Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to help children with anxiety and it can be treated successfully once you understand what’s going on.
School anxiety symptoms
So, how do you recognise if your child has a serious anxiety condition rather than the more typical mild back-to-school anxiety teenager after teenager will experience as the summer holidays draw to a close?
There is a range of school anxiety symptoms that can point to your child being in a situation which might require extra support and perhaps even intervention.
We can divide these into physical, emotional or behavioural symptoms:
While teenagers can show any of these symptoms at any time, if you notice they exhibit more than a few of these over a couple of weeks, they could be a sign something is wrong.
Back-to-school anxiety becomes a real problem if it starts to prevent your teenager from living their normal life. It can cause them to overreact to small problems, force them to avoid important situations and even avoid school altogether.
In the worst cases, it can make even simple daily tasks like getting dressed, taking the bus or facing classmates seem impossible. Your teenager could start suffering panic attacks which can be very scary experiences that can almost feel like a heart attack.
What causes the back-to-school anxiety high school pupils can suffer?
It’s very possible your child is experiencing back-to-school anxiety symptoms without understanding what’s wrong with them. Even adults can suffer anxiety but be unable to identify it or explain what’s causing it. 🤷
While we talk about “back-to-school anxiety”, the source of the problem could be more specific. The following factors could all be contributing to your teenager’s condition:
- Difficulties in one or more subjects
- Exam pressure
- Friendship troubles
- Lack of friends or not fitting in
- Poor social skills
- Starting a new class or school
- Stressful events at home such as bereavement, divorce, or family illness
- Undiagnosed learning difficulties or mental or physical health issues
If you can find out why they’re feeling anxious you can start to help them find solutions to their problems. However, it may not be one big thing but lots of little things that have piled on the pressure until it all gets to be too much. In any case, it’s a good idea to learn how to deal with the anxiety itself while you help them work on the causes.
How to deal with back-to-school anxiety
When it comes to helping your back-to-school anxiety teenager it’s important not to overreact. Your child learns how to deal with situations by watching you and the other adults in their life. Try to respond to the situation gently and calmly and reassure them that you can get the situation under control together. 👪
Here are some strategies you can use to support them:
1. Ease them in gently
It’s helpful to slowly re-introduce your teenager to school two or three weeks before the start of term using “exposure therapy”.
Exposure therapy is a technique to help people face their fears step-by-step. When a teenager is afraid of school they may avoid everything related to it as much as possible in order to feel safe. But over time, this can make the fear stronger.
If you carefully expose your child to reminders of school in a safe way, you can help them conquer their anxiety.
You could start by explaining that it’s normal to feel nervous or worried about going back. Be positive but realistic about the new term. Tell them that it’s important to talk about their fears and worries because they need to know that you will validate their feelings rather than dismiss them. Start a conversation to get them to open up about their hopes and fears for the coming school year. Don’t try to guess what the problem is, instead ask them open questions like:
- What are you looking forward to about going back to school?
- How do you expect things will be different?
- What do you want to achieve this year?
- Is there anything you’re worried about?
- What can you do about these problems?
They might not want to discuss it on your first attempt, so let them know that you are there to help if there’s anything they need to talk about. If they open up, show empathy and use supportive language.
You could also take them for a walk or drive past their school a few times before term starts. It’s a good idea to let the school know if your kid is having severe anxiety. Explain the situation and try to arrange a couple of meetings with teachers to talk through the syllabus for the new term.
2. Explain anxiety
As you’re dealing with a teenager it can be good to give them a clearer understanding of why they might feel the way they do and explain that anxiety can actually be helpful.
Anxiety is a natural defence mechanism that has evolved to keep people out of dangerous life-or-death situations. We feel anxiety because our body is preparing to deal with the danger by what’s called fight or flight. For example, in the past when our lives were much more dangerous we needed our heart rate to increase and our body to fill with nervous energy to run away from wild animals or, if we couldn’t escape, we needed to be able to fight them off.
These days, our bodies still respond the same way but not usually in life-or-death situations. Modern triggers that cause the fight-or-flight response could be things like taking an exam, public speaking or going back to school.
3. Control negative thinking
Anxiety can occur or get worse because your child might be trapped in a cycle of negative thinking. The things we think affect how we feel, so mastering thoughts is a good way to start to get our emotions under control. Here are some ways you can help them manage their negative thoughts:
- The first step is to learn to recognize them when they happen. There are probably some that they have regularly so ask them to start making a list of their most frequent negative thoughts.
- The next step is to think of ways to argue against the negative thoughts. They should think about the reasons the thoughts aren’t true. If, for example, they often think “nobody likes me”, they should think of all the people who do like them, from family to friends to acquaintances. Then every time their negative thoughts come back, they already have arguments prepared to show it’s not true.
- Replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. Get them to think about what advice they would give to a relative or friend who expressed the same negative thoughts and tell them to apply those words to themselves.
4. Relaxation techniques
Anxiety has physical symptoms and some physical actions can actually help relieve them.
Deep relaxing breathing can be an effective tool your teenager can use anywhere and anytime they feel anxious and it’s remarkably easy to do.
Just tell them to start concentrating on their breathing by taking a long slow deep breath in through their nose and letting it out just as slowly through their mouth. While they breathe tell them to think of something nice that makes them happy. They don’t even have to close their eyes, but if they do it will let them concentrate more on their happy image.
Deep breathing can be combined with muscle relaxation exercises. Anxiety can leave the body very tense but conscious effort can tackle this symptom. Tell your child to tense the muscles in specific parts of their body while breathing in slowly and deeply and then consciously relax them while slowly breathing out. They can start by tensing their feet and toes for a few seconds before relaxing them and gradually work their way up to their head and neck.
5. When to look for professional help
If your teenager’s anxiety is severe enough to cause panic attacks or lasts longer than two weeks it’s time to get them to see a counsellor, therapist or doctor.
Your GP can prescribe medication but a talking therapy should be the first option except in extreme cases. A counsellor or other mental health professional can help your teenager identify the causes of their anxiety and give them mental tools to help reduce their fears.
If your teenager’s back to school anxiety symptoms are caused by academic or exam worries, one solution is to arrange for some extra help through tutoring. Here at GoStudent, our expert tutors can provide support in any subject or exam and are available to solve your child’s worries and boost their confidence. Put their name down for a free trial class today!