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What to Do When™: Teens + End-of-School-Year Anxiety

anxiety behindourbehaviour endofschoolyearanxiety juliesmith parenting parentingteens school speakteen summer summervacation teens May 31, 2019

Hi Julie~

My daughter was diagnosed with anxiety over the school year. She’s done a pretty good job of managing it, and I really thought that having a break from school would make her feel even better - especially after having some time to sleep and rest. However, now that school is out, she seems more tired and more anxious than ever. What can I do?

Anxiety is a universal emotion, and, on some level, everyone experiences anxiety. Many teens experience heightened levels of anxiety when there is a transition or change in their life. Anxiety is a normal stress reaction to perceived danger. The end of the school year marks a change for your daughter, so her anxiety may rise because change may feel like perceived danger. There are some ways that you can help her manage her anxiety and settle into summer break.

Validate Feelings

Validating your teen’s feelings can help them to feel understood. Let her know that you empathize with the feeling of anxiety. (“I hear that you are worried about the summer. Schedule changes can feel uncertain. That’s understandable.) For teens, receiving validation for something they are feeling also strengthens their trust in you. Rather, simply acknowledge the feeling by listening and reflecting back what they’ve told you (“I hear that you are really feeling anxious.) You may help them articulate unsaid emotions, thoughts, or needs (“Is there another feeling mixed in with your worry? Is there anything you need?). Take notice that you do not turn this into a “teachable moment” or a lecture. This is a time to simply listen to your child.

Invite Familiarity

During the school year, teens may experience a sense of routine, of familiarity. Once summer break starts, feelings of routine and structure may feel non-existent. Encourage your child to create a framework for the summer. What are the tasks or actions that would feel familiar? For example, if your daughter loved P.E. class, perhaps she would benefit from joining a gym for the summer. Perhaps your teen loved that every Friday night during the school year was pizza night? Keep the tradition up during the summer as familiar things--food, music, activities, surroundings, etc.--make us feel comfortable and lower levels of stress and anxiety.

“Cope It Forward”

When working with individuals, I like to employ “coping it forward.” Coping it forward means being proactive. Help your teen identify the stressful thoughts, concerns, or situations. For example, is your teen worried about not seeing friends as often? If so, cope it forward by asking, “What would you tell a friend if she was worried about not seeing you?” or “How would you like to connect with your friends this summer?" After your child has shared a few thoughts, ask if you could offer a few suggestions, as well. The key word here is to ASK before offering any suggestions. When teens feel anxious, their fight, flight, and freeze response is kicked into gear. Well-meaning suggestions offered without permission can come across as a lecture or a judgment.

When anxious feelings are elevated, the fight, flight, or freeze response amps up and it can be challenging to know what can help. Encourage your teen to create a cope-it-forward list to practice coping skills and also increase the ability to access these strategies in the future when stress levels rise. A few ideas to get the list started include:

  • Tune into the five senses and find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you smell, 2 things you can touch, 1 thing you can taste.
  • Listen to a playlist.
  • Go for a walk or run.
  • Text a friend.
  • Watch a funny movie or find something on YouTube that makes you laugh out loud.
  • Stretch or do yoga.
  • Lightly run one or two fingers over your lips. This will stimulate the parasympathetic fibers in your lips, and you’ll feel calmer.
  • Write down five things you are grateful for.

If you find your teen’s anxiety levels staying the same or increasing, consider contacting a therapist to provide additional support to both you and your child. And, now, I’d like to hear from you. How do you know when your teen is feeling anxious? What are the things you do to help your child transition out of the school year and into summer break?


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