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Protecting Your Teen’s Mental Health This School Year

Charlie Health has the advice you need to support your teen’s mental health as they prepare to go back to school.

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Going back to school can be stressful. After three months of summer break, the idea of navigating social interactions, school rules, and homework assignments is enough to make anyone a bit anxious (no matter how too-cool-for-school your teen may act). And in addition to the usual back-to-school woes, many teens are struggling with concerns about school violence or the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a parent, there’s a good chance that you share similar concerns. That’s where Charlie Health can help. If we've learned anything over the past few years, it’s that understanding how to identify, address, and seek help for mental health issues is pivotal to supporting a teen’s present and future. 

Below we offer advice on how to support your child’s mental health and wellbeing as they start the new school year.

Does school actually cause teens stress?

The answer to this question will vary person-to-person, but it’s not uncommon for teens to report that anxiety and depression are a major problem for them and for their classmates—especially in recent years. 

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed the negative effect that had on teens. In 2021, more than one-third of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly half felt persistently sad or hopeless. The report also noted that schools play a crucial role in supporting the health and wellbeing of students, and that returning to a regular school year might alleviate some mental health concerns. 

The American Psychological Association's annual report also pointed to a recent increase in stress and anxiety for teens. Largely influenced by COVID-19, the findings show that Gen-Z teens (ages 13-17) experienced more stress than the previous year—mostly due to uncertainty about their futures and concerns about their education. 

That wasn't the only report linking school and stress. According to research published by the Pew Research Center in 2019 on teen mental health, 61% (out of 920 teens ages 13-17 years) said they felt pressure to get good grades. In addition to academic stress, they noted that high school fuels pressure to look good (29%), be socially accepted (28%), and excel at sports (21%). 

Signs of back-to-school stress

Young people—like adults—express their stress, anxiety, and frustration in different ways. Here are some signs that your child might benefit from additional support as they head back to school.

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Changes in behavior—such as irritability, nervousness, or restlessness
  • Substance use or other risky behaviors
  • Physical complaints—such as headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, or events that were typically enjoyable 
  • Destructive behavior—such as stealing, damaging property, or setting fires
  • Comments that suggest a desire to harm self or others
Teens commuting to school

How to help your child cope with back-to-school stress

Discourage perfectionism 

Any parent would be proud to have a child who’s committed to doing their best, but it’s important to know how to spot the difference between passion and perfectionism.

Perfectionism—defined as a tendency to set unrealistically high standards for oneself or for others—is becoming increasingly common among younger generations and can lead to clinical diagnoses of depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. Encourage your child to set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals, while embracing both their accomplishments and their lessons learned. 

Be a positive role model

Even if it doesn’t feel like your teen listens to your advice, most high schoolers still turn to their parents for reassurance. Between the lingering threat of COVID-19, new health scares like monkeypox, and America’s mass violence epidemic, some teens may have real concerns about returning to school this fall.

One of the best ways that parents can help alleviate their teen’s anxiety is by showing them how to effectively manage their stress. Remind your child that school is a safe place, while teaching them how to process their emotions, establish healthy boundaries, and prioritize sleep. 

Listen and show support

Not all teens are keen to open up to their parents, but it’s important to be ready if and when they do. Let your child know that they can always come to you—without judgment—when they feel stressed, overwhelmed, or are struggling.

And when they do turn to you, practice active listening. Although your first instinct might be to offer advice or ask questions, try listening to them with an open mind, acknowledge their truth, and ask only how you can help support them.

Be an ally 

Research shows that Generation Z (anyone born between 1997 and 2012) is more likely than any other generation to identify as something other than heterosexual or cisgender. While this can be encouraging for some children to be their authentic selves at school, it also comes with an increased risk for bullying, discrimination, and microaggressions.

Help to reduce stress and anxiety by reminding your child that you support them and their decisions. You can also contact their school administration to see if there are any specific policies that promote LGBTQIA+ inclusion. 

Emphasize the importance of self-care

According to Dr. Caroline Fenkel, LCSW, Charlie Health’s Chief Clinical Officer and co-founder, parents can help their teens to build a healthier relationship with their emotions by encouraging routine, consistency, and healthy ways of coping with mental health issues. Dr. Fenkel suggests going for a walk, performing a mindfulness meditation, or practicing breathing exercises as a way to process stress, anxiety, and depression. Even dedicating thirty uninterrupted minutes per day to watching TV as a family can count as self-care. 

Seek professional mental health support

If you think that your child is struggling with their mental health, it’s never too soon to start the conversation around additional support. For some teens, self-care and healthy boundaries are enough to help them manage their stress and anxiety. In other cases, however, intensive outpatient therapy or medication might be the right course of action to treat their mental health condition.

Head back to school with Charlie Health

Many teens feel embarrassed or overwhelmed by their mental health struggles, so opening up to their parents can be a big step. If you think that your teen might benefit from speaking with a mental health professional, we’re here to talk. Charlie Health can help your teen settle into the school year and cope with stress in a safe, supportive space.

Our intensive outpatient treatment programs provide a high-quality, comprehensive treatment solution that includes personalized groups, family therapy, and individual therapy. Our compassionate, experienced team of clinicians is here to listen to your child’s needs, answer their questions, and help them start the healing process.

Contact Charlie Health today.

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