Navigating Teens’ Back To School Anxiety

By The Fix staff 08/15/17

Although back to school anxiety is common, it becomes a concern when it begins interfering with a teen’s day to day life.

Drawing of teen students with blank faces, linked arms

The back-to-school shopping is done, the backpacks are packed, but many teenagers aren’t quite ready for the school year to begin. This is especially true for teens with anxiety.

“It’s normal for any young person getting ready to go back to school to be anxious about any number of things,” says Cole Rucker, founder and CEO of Paradigm Malibu, an adolescent treatment center. Although back to school anxiety is common, it becomes a concern when it begins interfering with a teen’s day to day life.

Teens often work hard to keep their parents out of the loop when it comes to mental health struggles.

“Parents are frequently the last to know what’s going on because young people put so much energy into making sure that’s the case,” Rucker says.

However, it’s critical for parents to be well-informed about teen anxiety in order to help their child prepare for the school year ahead.

What Are The Warning Signs?

“Look for anything outside their norm,” Rucker advises. If you notice serious changes it may be time to seek help for your teenager. Signs of teen anxiety, especially around school, can include:

  • Unwillingness to come out of their room
  • Physical ailments like headaches or stomach aches
  • Speaking with great despair
  • Suicidal ideation

Although any teens can experience school anxiety, it is particularly common during transition times, like beginning high school or moving into a new school system.

“Those are big life events that can be very frightening,” Rucker says.

Why Are Teens So Anxious About School?

It's a regular part of daily life for for teens, but many adolescents still experience anxiety over returning to or going to school. That anxiety can be rooted in a number of issues, including:

  • Social Anxiety: Just like adults, teens can have generalized social anxiety that makes it hard for them be be around other people. “Just being in groups of people might result in higher anxiety,” Rucker explains.
  • Peer pressure: Teens are building their identities, and part of that process includes putting a lot of weight into the feedback that their peers give them. If that feedback isn’t positive, it can be crippling for a teenager. “If you’re getting negative input it can be much more impactful than it would be for an adult,” Rucker says.
  • Bullying: A teen who is being bullied will try to avoid going to school, where the abuse takes place.
  • Desire to succeed: Some high-achieving students become so focused on perfection that they are unable to turn in their work or go to school, fearing that they will not be good enough, Rucker says.

What Can Parents Do?

It is important for parents to address anxiety as soon as they see that it is affecting their teen.

“Do something right away,” Rucker says. “I don’t think you have to sit with questions or worry that you’re going to impose on somebody’s time.”

First, be sure that you’re having open communication with your teenager about your concerns, and get his or her perspective on the situation. If you’re noticing concerning behaviors like skipping school, try to identify the root cause of the behavior rather than reacting to it.

“Focus not on the behavior but on the emotional underpinnings of the behavior,” Rucker says.

Next, get in touch with your child’s school. Teachers and school counselors are willing and able to help. Even if a teen will require professional help outside of the school, beginning with the school's resources is the best way to keep everyone aware of the situation.

“That’s why teachers and officials are there,” Rucker says. “Early and frequent communication allows everyone to collaborate on the same page and know exactly what’s going on with their progress in helping a young person.”

Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent treatment center in Malibu, California. Find out more at or follow them on Facebook.

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