A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Back-to-school blues: Helping your teenager cope

Female teenager taking an exam, appearing stressed - Mental health awareness

Transitioning from summer vacation to school creates many potential sources of stress for teens, like academics, social life and extracurricular activities.

Dr. Michael Schulein, a child psychologist at Marshfield Clinic, has noticed something interesting and concerning in his practice around the time that school starts each year.

“In child/adolescent behavioral health, we see an increased frequency of referrals at very specific times of the year,” he said. “One of the big referral times is September through October when kids are getting back into the routines of school.”

Schulein sees what he calls a “persistent stress” in kids around this time of year.

“That stress may show up in poor sleep, change in appetite, increased irritability, more arguing, complaints about school, conflicts over homework or chores, sadness and being quieter,” he said.

What’s causing the stress?

Schulein said a change in routine can be hard for anyone, child or adult. Transitioning from summer vacation to school creates many potential sources of stress like academics, social life and extracurricular activities.

Teenagers may be exposed to bullying on a daily basis, which likely wasn’t occurring much during summer,” Schulein said. “Going from a lower level of activity during the summer to a higher level of responsibility during the school year is also a difficult transition.”

Schulein said kids may be tightly scheduled with little down time during the school year. Not only are kids’ schedules busier than ever, but they are also exposed to more information than ever.

“We are bombarded with more knowledge than at any other time in our species,” Schulein said, referencing the rise of the internet, smart phones and social media. “Our technology has evolved faster than we’ve been able to adapt and set limits on it.”

Because of the ability to connect with peers online, teenagers may not step away from their social lives as much as they used to, and this can cause stress.

“As our minds are supposed to be calming down to slowly fall asleep, the social contact keeps us alert and may cause intense emotions depending on what we read and see online,” Schulein said.

How parents can help

The first thing parents can do to help their children through the back-to-school blues is to be available to listen and show empathy.

“Try to remember what it was like for you as a teenager to return to school,” Schulein said.

To help keep perspective on your child’s experience as school starts, Schulein said parents should think about what it’s like to return to work from a vacation.

Schulein also suggests parents work to respect the feelings their teenager has rather than trying to diminish the size of the problem.

Parents, in their effort to help, can come off as dismissing their child’s feelings,” he said. “The parent is trying to help, but without respect and empathy, what you say can come off to the teenager as you saying, ‘It’s not that big of a deal. This is just high school. Get over it.’”

Rather than saying “It’s not a big deal,” try saying something like, “Wow, I understand what you’re going through. That must be really hard.” Add extra time in the evening to talk with your teenager, reminding them you are there for them and will support them through this adjustment.

Most kids make it through the stresses of the new school year well and settle back into their school routines. However, if your child is not settling into the routines with sleep schedule, school work and activities by two to four weeks into the year, talk with your child’s teacher or school counselor about your concerns. You also may contact your child’s provider for advice.

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