A teacher sits at a table with students as they return to school. The teacher is instructing a back-to-school art activity to reduce back-to-school mental health struggles.

Back-to-School Teen Mental Health Guide for Parents, Teachers, and Providers

September 8, 2023

11 min.

It’s essential to support young people's mental health, especially as they return to the classroom. That’s why we created this back-to-school guide to help parents, teachers, and providers best support teens. Read on to learn more.

By: Ashley Laderer

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

It’s that time of year again: Summer temperatures are dropping, school supplies are flying off the shelves, and students are filled with mixed emotions about heading back to school. While the return to school can be exciting, it can also bring about stress, anxiety, and mental health challenges for many students. 

That’s why we have created this comprehensive back-to-school guide for how adults can help teens. This guide provides valuable insights and practical, actionable advice for parents, teachers, and providers on supporting students’ mental health during this transitional period. Whether you’re a parent to a teen, a teacher, or a provider, here’s your guide to back to school. 

Back to school teen mental health tips for parents

Teens face many challenges at the start of a new school year, and as a parent, it’s crucial that you’re prepared to be there for them during this time. By fostering a nurturing and understanding home environment—through honest conversations and healthy communication skills—you’ll provide your teen with the emotional support they need to thrive, even during a new school year. Keep reading to learn expert-recommended tips to support your teenage child as they return to school this year. 

Stay kind and compassionate

Back-to-school can be a time of significant stress for kids of all ages. Teens might be anxious about adjusting to new schedules, dealing with new teachers, juggling assignments, and extracurricular activities. 

“When we see the teens we know and love stressed, it stresses us out, too –– and stress can lead to anxiety, anger, fear, or a whole host of other intense emotions. If you find yourself going down that route, take a moment to reset back to a kind place,” says licensed clinical social worker Mallory Grimste. Remember that your reactions as a parent can significantly impact the teenagers in your life. By practicing kindness, empathy, patience, and open communication, you can create a supportive environment where teens feel understood, safe, heard, and encouraged. Start the school year strong with compassion and set the stage for the rest of the year. 

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Don’t neglect your own self-care

On the note of kindness and compassion, remember the saying: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” To best take care of your loved ones, you must also take care of yourself, too. Back-to-school can be difficult for parents, as well as kids. “Self-care is a necessary ingredient to maintaining our own emotional regulation. If we, the supportive adults in our kids’s lives, aren’t regulated, we can’t help our teens regulate to the best of our abilities,” Grimste says. “Making your own self-care needs a priority is a must –– maintaining healthy sleep hygiene, eating nutritiously throughout the day, or even incorporating stretching or movement throughout your day.”

Get curious

While it may be easier said than done, don’t assume you know everything. For better or worse, nobody is a mind reader. “When we assume we know the answer or lock in on one perspective, we miss an opportunity for understanding,” Grimste says. “You don’t have to necessarily agree with your teen’s perspective, but taking the time to stay curious about their thought process and emotional experience will help in not only knowing how to support them but how they can build up the skill of asking for help when needed.” 

Furthermore, remember that you don’t always have to add your two cents when you get curious. Sometimes, teens just need someone to simply listen. “Being an active listener is vital. When teens express themselves, it’s not always about seeking solutions –– sometimes, they need the validation of being heard and understood,” says nationally certified school psychologist Alex Anderson-Kahl.

Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations

It can be uncomfortable for both you and your teen to have difficult conversations about tough topics. However, it’s important not to shy away from these talks.

“Conversations can happen over time in bite-sized pieces. And yes, you will have to have the same conversation a few times before it sticks,” Grimste says. “That being said, keep talking about the tough things, and let them know that when they’re ready, you’d love to hear their thoughts and perspectives, too. Most teens will need time to acclimate and organize their responses before they’re ready to share them with the adults they care about.”

If you think your teen may be really struggling with their mental health, don’t shy away from “scary” questions. Grimste recommends asking teens directly if they’re thinking about hurting themselves or having thoughts of suicide, for example. “They may not respond honestly or fully right away, but knowing that you’re not afraid to ask will let them know you’re also not afraid of the answer and can get them help if they need it,” she says. (If a young person in your life is having thoughts of harming themselves or someone else, this is a mental health emergency, and you should contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.)

Stay positive and celebrate small wins

“A positive mindset can be a powerful tool in navigating challenges. Encouraging a growth mindset in teens can shift their perspective to view challenges not as insurmountable obstacles but as opportunities for personal development,” says Anderson-Kahl. “Small victories, whether it’s understanding a complex topic or maintaining a study routine, deserve acknowledgment. Celebrate these moments to reinforce their importance.”

However, this doesn’t mean you should practice “toxic positivity” and ignore anything that’s not-so-great. Use these moments as learning opportunities. “Remember that setbacks are a natural part of any journey. Instead of dwelling on them, use them as a springboard for learning and growth,” Anderson-Kahl says. 

Back to school teen mental health tips for teachers

As a teacher, it’s your responsibility to help your students grow and learn at school, including raising awareness of mental health. With the increasing number of concerns surrounding Gen Z’s mental health, teachers must be aware of teens’ mental health struggles and how to help.

While these tips are geared towards teachers who work with teens in high school, the tips in this back-to-school guide can be modified and used regardless of whether you’re working with elementary school or middle school students. 

Create a welcoming class environment

Unfortunately, many students do not feel very emotionally safe at school due to various stressors such as bullying or discrimination. As a teacher, you can do your best to ensure students feel safe in your class. “A welcoming classroom environment promotes a sense of belonging and inclusivity, where students feel safe, respected, and valued,” says Danyell Taylor White, a licensed clinical social worker and K-12 educator. 

She suggests the following tips for cultivating a welcoming classroom:

  • Using flexible seating arrangements that accommodate different learning styles
  • Incorporating culturally diverse learning materials
  • Keeping clear classroom routines and maintaining expectations to foster a predictable, safe environment
  • Building positive teacher-student relationships through supportive and caring interactions
  • Actively listening to students and showing genuine interest in their lives

“When classroom environments are welcoming, students feel more comfortable taking risks, sharing ideas, and seeking help when needed,” says Taylor White.

Foster a sense of belonging

“Fostering a sense of belonging and community is crucial in supporting high school students, as it helps create a supportive and inclusive classroom environment where all students feel valued and accepted,” Taylor White says. She suggests teachers create opportunities for students to engage in collaborative activities like group projects or team-building exercises. 

Encouraging extracurricular activities is another way to help students find a way to feel like they belong. You can play your part by letting students know about any relevant extracurricular clubs or by getting involved and volunteering to help run extracurriculars. 

Encourage peer support and mentoring

In high school, students may have trouble adjusting, especially at the start of a new school year. You can help students adjust and make new social connections by encouraging peer support. “Adolescence is a time of seeking identity and belonging. Teachers can facilitate peer mentorship programs where older students guide younger ones,” says Anderson-Kahl. “For instance, a senior might mentor a freshman, offering advice on navigating high school challenges, both academically and socially.”

Normalize conversations about mental health

Use back-to-school as an opportunity to start opening up important dialogues right away. Let your students know that you are open to having difficult conversations about mental health and that you want to help educate and support them. “Normalize discussions about mental health by dedicating time to discuss topics like anxiety, depression, or body image. For example, a teacher could organize a Mental Health Day with guest speakers, videos, and open forums where students can share and learn,” says Anderson-Kahl. 

Teach students coping skills

While stress management techniques aren’t typically part of teachers’ curriculums, teaching your students some basic coping skills they can use in your classroom and beyond can be super helpful. Think of these skills as invaluable school supplies for the new school year. “Teens face a myriad of pressures, from academic to social. Teachers can dedicate a session to real-life stress management, such as teaching the ‘4-7-8’ breathing technique or introducing apps like Calm or Headspace that offer guided meditations tailored for teens,” Anderson-Kahl says. You may also suggest student services that are available free of charge to students, such as school social workers or psychologists. 

A group of students, who are returning back-to-school, line up in front of a yellow school bus for the first day of class. They are feeling a range of mental health symptoms—from excited to nervous—about returning to school.

Be aware of unique needs and accommodations

Some students with certain learning disabilities or other conditions may have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans. As a teacher, review and fully understand these documents so you know what accommodations a student needs to help them feel comfortable and excel in school. On top of familiarizing yourself with this information, it’s important to regularly connect with the student’s team (such as their counselors and parents). Encourage open lines of communication directly with the student as well, so they feel comfortable discussing their needs and any challenges they may face in your classroom.

Back to school teen mental health tips for providers

As a trained and qualified provider, you already know that teenagers face unique challenges during the back-to-school period. It’s important to stay attuned and adapt your treatment approach accordingly. Keep an eye out and be proactive in working with teen clients, offering a safe space for them to express their concerns, fears, or anxieties. Follow these tips to switch up your practice to best accommodate teen clients coping with back-to-school mental health concerns.

Teach stress management and coping skills

Providing high school students with useful mental health tools is super helpful. If a student is already engaged in therapy, they can use these tools outside of sessions when stress is particularly high—like during the back-to-school transition period. “Mental health professionals should offer practical tools and techniques that students can utilize to reduce stress,” Taylor White says. “Equipping students with effective coping skills is necessary for navigating challenges.”

Some coping skills and stress management techniques Taylor White recommends teaching are:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Mindfulness practices
  • Time management strategies
  • Journaling
  • Cognitive-behavioral techniques
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Reframing negative thoughts

Offer group support

While individual therapy is very helpful for teens struggling with mental health, group therapy can be an excellent addition to their treatment plan. Group therapy or support groups allow teens to connect with other peers who may be facing similar challenges. It can provide a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation.

You might also consider offering groups covering different specific areas of concern. “Topics like peer pressure, body image, or cyberbullying are particularly relevant for teens. Providers can organize sessions where teens share their experiences and coping strategies,” says Anderson-Kahl.

Provide additional workshops and resources 

On top of your work with students, you can also offer resources such as workshops that address teen-specific issues. For example, Anderson-Kahl says you may host a workshop on healthy relationships, delving into understanding consent, recognizing toxic patterns, and building self-worth. These skills, while super important, are often not taught by parents or teachers at school. Providing educational resources can help students build awareness of common issues and proactively learn how to cope. 

Collaborate with school staff

Even when teens feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you, it can be helpful to have outside perspectives to get an even more thorough view of the big picture. “Teens often exhibit signs of distress in academic settings. Providers can work with teachers to identify changes in a teen’s behavior,” Anderson-Kahl says. “For instance, if a teacher notices a student’s declining grades and withdrawal from activities, they can liaise with the provider to offer targeted support, ensuring the teen receives comprehensive care.”

Just make sure any appropriate consent forms for communication are completed before discussing a client’s situation with their teacher. Additionally, you can collaborate with the school on updating any relevant IEPs or 504 plans. 

Promote a holistic approach to well-being

Provide education to students about how important their physical and mental health are to teens during middle school and high school while their brains and bodies are quickly growing and developing.

“Addressing all aspects of students’ well-being, including physical, emotional, and social aspects, is necessary for comprehensive support. It is important to emphasize the importance of a balanced lifestyle, including proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep,” says Taylor White. Additionally, she urges mental health providers to collaborate with other professionals, such as teachers and healthcare providers, to ensure a holistic approach.

How Charlie Health can help

On top of following the tips in this back-to-school guide, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs that a young person needs professional treatment. If a teen or young adult in your life is struggling with their mental health, Charlie Health is here to help.

Charlie Health aims to end the youth mental health crisis by providing more equitable access to professional care. Our virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides personalized services for teens, young adults, and families coping with various mental health concerns.

Whether you’re exploring treatment options for the first time or searching for extra support, Charlie Health provides individualized and evidence-based mental health care in a safe, supportive space.

Fill out this short form to learn more today.

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