Back to School: Strategies for Supporting Teen Mental Health
For children and teens, going back to school means reuniting with friends, engaging in stimulating learning experiences, and embarking on fresh adventures. However, this transition can also pose mental health challenges. By equipping adolescents with the tools to plan effectively, manage stress, and communicate their needs, parents can empower their children to thrive both academically and emotionally. Below are some strategies to support teens as they prepare to return to school.
Get Organized with a Calendar or Agenda
Before school starts, parents can work with their child or teen to develop a calendar that includes extracurricular activities, projects, social events, and holidays. Your planner could be a Google calendar, an app, or even a spiral-bound agenda.
Set an expectation that everything goes on the calendar. Plan for regular check-ins when you can look at the calendar together and discuss deadlines and time management. Older teens may take more ownership of managing the calendar while younger students will need more support.
Many schools do not allow students to access smartphones during class. If using an app, talk through how the student plans to record homework assignments in class and then transfer them to the app later, or discuss using a paper agenda or planner instead.
By mapping out schedules and setting expectations, students can stay organized, communicate what help they need from parents in advance, and reduce stressful “last-minute” situations.
Prioritize Sleep, Healthy Eating, and Active Living
Sleep is a critical component of mental health. Teens ages 13 to 18 should have 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. Parents should establish a consistent bedtime to ensure children get enough sleep.
Limiting screen time (especially “scrolling”) right before bed and removing phones and devices from the bedroom after bedtime maybe useful steps in promoting healthy sleep. If weekly schedules consistently prevent students from getting enough sleep, consider whether some activities could be reduced or removed. Work with coaches or other instructors to discuss options for ensuring your child has a schedule that supports their overall health and wellness.
And be sure schedules include considerations for healthy meals and snacks throughout the day, as well as regular physical exercise.
Discuss Expectations and Set Consequences
Open communication and collaboration between parents and children are vital. Discuss expectations like school performance, household chores, time spent on devices or gaming, and behavior in social settings. Allow teens to take ownership by setting their own consequences for not meeting those expectations.
For example, if a child historically has had trouble completing their homework, you can ask them, “What should happen if you don’t have your homework done on time?” They may say, “It would make sense to me that I would not see my friends until my homework gets done. So I would not go to the movies, etc.”
Maybe not completing an assigned household chore results in loss of phone access for a period of time. Maybe not following curfew results in loss of car or driving privileges.
Have these conversations in advance, before the school year starts, when everyone is thinking logically, instead of in response to an incident when emotions may be more involved. By setting realistic consequences in advance, small conflicts can be addressed without escalation, leading to a more harmonious home environment.
Develop a Technology Plan:
Technology plays a significant role in a child’s life, and it’s essential to set boundaries and expectations around its use. Areas to consider are amount of time, purpose of use, and access.
Parents need access to their child’s devices, including passwords and login information for the device, as well as any social media or messaging apps. And teens should be aware that sharing current login information is a condition for continued use. Especially for younger teens, parents should set the expectation that they will look at social media or messaging feeds from time to time with their teen. Regular check-ins may reinforce an important understanding that online communications are often neither private nor anonymous. Discuss expectations for social media and messaging behavior, including how to protect their privacy and safety and how to report harassment or bullying.
You may consider setting a limit on the amount of time technology is used, or limiting use to a specific window of time. Parents can communicate with the school to determine realistic technology usage for educational purposes. You can start by asking, “How much time on technology do you realistically think my child will need for homework each evening?” From there you can assess what extra time may need to be added for social media, gaming or other forms of recreation.
For teens who struggle with healthy technology use, establishing additional rules, such as leaving devices at home during school hours, can help minimize distractions and promote focus. Consider using apps that track time on devices or that monitor appropriate use to help both teens and parents better understand how much time they are spending online and set realistic goals for healthy use.
Address Back-to-School Anxiety
Returning to school can trigger anxiety. Parents can help alleviate these concerns by initiating contact with teachers or other school staff, sharing information about their child’s anxieties, and building connections between the child and supportive adults in the school community.
Before school starts, consider reaching out to teachers with whom students have had prior connections, such as their favorite history teacher or soccer coach. Let them know that your student plans to reach out and share about their summer. Emphasize that this connection with your child will help support them through back-to-school anxiety. You can show your appreciation through small gifts like coffee, treats, or gift cards. Then, encourage your teen to independently take the steps to connect with that teacher, coach, or other professional to build a relationship and ask for support.
Role-playing stress-inducing scenarios can help students feel more confident in navigating social interactions and seeking help when needed. Help your child “practice” talking to a teacher about accommodations or extra support, introducing themself to a new classmate, or appropriately correcting a teacher or student if they use an incorrect name or pronoun. You also can help your child think through what options they have when they’re feeling overwhelmed, like asking to go to the bathroom for a few minutes to decompress or checking in at the counseling office.
Consider scheduling a private visit to the school, if possible, so that a teen with anxiety or sensory concerns can map out their classroom schedule, find and open their locker, and know locations for bathrooms or quiet spaces.
Some students may best be supported by working with the school to create an IEP or 504 plan. If a student is eligible, these plans help students with disabilities or special needs receive needed support and accommodations. A 504 plan for anxiety could include extra time or a private space for tests. Plans may also outline appropriate interventions for teachers, for example noticing nervous habits like bouncing of the knee or tapping fingers and then knowing to give the student an out, such as sending them on an errand outside of the classroom that will allow them a moment to decompress.
Find the Balance Between Support and Independence
Parents should strike a balance between supporting their child through these pre-established connections and encouraging independence. Allowing children to experience failure can be a valuable learning opportunity. Knowing we can survive failure and then make different choices the next time, is an important lesson. And allowing them to handle conflict on their own can help them build confidence.
It is always appropriate for parents to maintain open lines of communication with teachers to understand their child’s progress, offer support when necessary, and collaborate on strategies for success. And consider allowing your teen to take the lead in most communications with teachers and coaches.
Often parents try “saving” or “rescuing” their teens from potentially painful situations; sometimes that’s appropriate and sometimes not. Some students struggling with a lack of motivation may need a natural consequence to prompt more responsible behavior. Other students who struggle with self-worth or thoughts of suicide or self-harm, may need more hands-on support until they can develop the skills needed to handle adversity. If parents have concerns about finding the right balance, consulting a family therapist or mental health professional may be an appropriate next step. Many mental health professionals may be able to work in conjunction with your child’s school.
Understand Executive Functioning
Although some children are diagnosed with ADHD, brain functioning during early teenage years creates organization issues for many students, regardless of diagnosis. If a child has organization issues and struggles to manage schoolwork independently, consider hiring a professional, like a tutor, to help them develop effective organizational strategies and hold them accountable. Some schools and community organizations offer free one-on-one or group support for students.
Assisted learning technologies may be another option to help students who struggle with reading, focus, or organizational skills. Tools like talk-to-text or Learning Ally are great for students who have trouble getting their ideas down or organizing their ideas. Look for technologies that will target the skills you are working on building with your children.
For parents, numerous websites, podcasts, and webinars are available to improve your understanding of what this struggle looks like for teens. Learning how typical childhood development influences a teen’s behavior can help parents reframe how they think about behavior patterns that may seem intentionally hurtful, destructive, or avoidant.
A great example comes from Richard Lavoie, a nationally known expert on learning disabilities. He shows how preventative discipline can anticipate many problems before they start. He also explains how teachers and parents can create a stable, predictable environment in which children with learning disabilities can flourish in this video below.
Promoting Resilience and Healthy Habits
As a child struggles with anxiety or experiences difficulty in learning, it is imperative to find their strengths and celebrate them; find their islands of competence. The idea of “islands of competence” was originally proposed as a metaphor by Robert B. Brooks, Ph.D., to help parents of children affected by ADHD help their kids develop resilience, the ability to bounce back or recover quickly from difficulties.
As children head back to school, parents can play an important role in helping them protect and prioritize their mental health. By implementing these strategies, parents can help support their child’s well-being, establish effective communication with teachers, and create a positive school experience. With proper planning and support, parents can guide their children toward a successful and fulfilling school year.
And know that mental health disorders are medical conditions that are most effectively treated by mental health professionals. If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing symptoms of an anxiety, mood, or substance use disorder, please contact a mental health professional for an evaluation. (Know some of the early signs of a mental health disorder.) Early intervention and support is important to slow or stop the progression of symptoms, and evidence-based treatment can help your teen learn strategies and skills to manage a mental health disorder in healthy and effective ways.
Laura Fillyaw, MS, MEd, NCC, is an Education Specialist with the Skyland Trail adolescent residential treatment program in Atlanta. Prior to joining Skyland Trail, Fillyaw served in Atlanta-area independent schools for 22 years as a teacher and administrator for middle- and high-school students.