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.
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.
Related Books from Magination Press
School Made Easier: A Kid’s Guide to Study Strategies and Anxiety-Busting Tools
Do you ever get nervous before a big test?
Do you get butterflies in your stomach before giving a presentation?
Do you ever lose track of papers?
Do you cram to finish long-term assignments at the last minute?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, this book is for you!
School Made Easier will show you how to:
Understand your academic stressUse “mind games” to feel less stressed and more confidentProblem-solve to cope with stressful situationsOrganize your papers and filesUse executive functioning skills to make homework and studying easierManage your time wiselyStudy more effectivelyStay calm and cool on test day
And much more!
Take a look inside, and start reducing your anxiety and increasing your confidence in school.
Believe it or not, school can be less stressful — and even fun! (ages 8-13)
My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic
Can you spare 30 minutes to feel less anxious?
Go ahead. Think about how your life would be different if you were less anxious. What would change? Would you try out for the basketball team? Ask someone out on a date? Would you sleep better and feel less tense? Would you feel calmer and happier?
My Anxious Mind outlines a simple and proven plan to help you understand and deal with your anxiety and panic. It is chock full of simple-to-use tools and strategies that easily fit into any teen’s busy routine. (ages 12-18)
How to Feel Good: 20 Things Teens Can Do
Being a teenager can be tough. It can be really hard sometimes to feel good about yourself and your abilities. New relationships and experiences are happening all around you, and that can make you insecure, overwhelmed, or stressed out.
How to Feel Good will help you slow down and pay attention to how you feel and what you think about yourself.
This book presents 20 simple, mind-healthy skills to guide you toward self-awareness and to teach you to stay calm and self-confident. You will also find additional strategies, self-reflection questions, and easy-to-do tools to help end frustration and develop patience so that you can achieve your goals.
Are you ready? Do 1 or learn all 20 skills and take charge of you. You are just a step away from feeling more confident, secure, and GREAT! (ages 13-18)