High school is a time of fun, excitement, growth, and change. For many teens, however, high school is also a time of tremendous stress. High schoolers must grapple with increased academic expectations, social pressures, executive function demands, romantic relationships, and decisions about their futures–all with a brain that is still developing and a body full of hormones! For teens prone to anxiety, high school can feel like a pressure cooker.

Your teen’s high school likely offers resources you may not be aware of–most notably teachers and school staff. By partnering with these individuals, parents are more able to support and empower their anxious teen to cope skillfully with anxiety in the high school environment.

Gather Information

To help your anxious teen, you must first understand how anxiety gets in the way in school. Anxiety can manifest in many ways in the high school setting. This may range from worries about grades and academics, to social fears, to discomfort being in the crowded, hectic building. Each of these presentations of anxiety might impact your teen’s behaviors in different ways. It’s important to understand what they’re doing–helpful and unhelpful–to cope with their anxiety. Are they avoiding certain classes, teachers, assignments, or social situations because the associated anxiety is too hard to handle? Do they text you all day or frequently ask to be picked up early? Are they “white knuckling it” through the school day, only to collapse when they get home? Alternatively, have they found any helpful strategies for managing their anxiety at school?

Once you have a sense of how anxiety impacts your teen at school, it’s time to build a school-based support system.

Build a Team

The first step to building your teen’s team in school is to find a point person to communicate with. This is often a guidance counselor, social worker, or school psychologist. This person can connect you and your teen with the other adults who will be able to support your teen. Depending on your teen’s age and maturity level, you can either make the initial contact with this person yourself or support your teen in emailing or reaching out to them independently.

Make a Plan

Next, you and your teen should meet with the point person. At the meeting, your teen should explain how anxiety is making school difficult for them. Encourage your teen to speak for themselves at this step as they will be their own best advocate going forward. Some teens might understandably feel anxious about this. It can be helpful to support them in writing out a list of their challenges during the school day to present in the meeting.

By taking small, sequential steps, your teen learns that they can handle their anxiety in less stressful situations.  They can build on this until they are able to face more intense worries.

Next, brainstorm as a group about what your teen might do to cope with their anxiety in school. Your point person should have many ideas about potential accommodations from working with other anxious students. When developing ideas, it’s important to find a balance between relaxing current expectations and encouraging the teen to face stressful situations. Taking a gradual approach to facing fears is the most effective route. For example, if your teen is avoiding public speaking in class, they might be permitted to initially present to the teacher individually, then to smaller group setting, and finally to the whole class.

By taking small, sequential steps, your teen learns that they can handle their anxiety in less stressful situations.  They can build on this until they are able to face more intense worries. Additionally, make strategies as concrete as possible so that there is consistency across all adults with whom your teen interacts. For example, rather than having a generic rule that your teen can “take a break when they’re stressed,” plan for them to a) signal to their teacher when they need a break, b) go to a pre-determined location such as the guidance counselor’s office, c) spend 5-10 minutes actively using a coping skill such as a mindfulness activity or deep breathing to calm down, and then d) return to class.


Once you have agreed upon a plan to try, make sure teachers and other staff members are aware of it. You can accomplish this through a larger meeting or emails. Ideally, your teen can communicate the plan to their teachers with the support of their point person. Put the plan into action and evaluate its helpfulness with your teen and your team over time. As challenges arise, support your teen in self-advocating for changes or a review of the plan with the team. Continue to adjust the plan until your teen is more successfully managing their anxiety in school.

When to Seek Additional Support

If your teen’s anxiety continues to impair their functioning in school despite accommodations and collaboration with teachers and staff, consider asking your school to evaluate your teen for special education accommodations. These accommodations, such as a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP), are designed to ensure your teen receives appropriate supports in the school environment. Also consider seeking out a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for anxiety in youth.

If your efforts to partner with your teen’s school have gone unanswered, contact their principal or district superintendent. Explain the situation and advocate for your teen’s rights. To learn more about your rights in the school setting as the parent of a teen with social/emotional needs, go to the website of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.

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