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What to Do When Back-to-School Blues Trigger Anxiety

Most students anticipate the start of each school year with eagerness—excited to see school friends daily and take on new challenges. Yet transitions are also difficult, as each year also brings uncertainty about constantly changing social circles and academic expectations. For students with anxiety these concerns can quickly become overwhelming. So how can parents distinguish between everyday growing pains and anxiety with deeper roots? And what is the next step for helping anxious students regain their footing? 

Anxiety is on the rise among adolescents. A study recently published in the journal Pediatrics found that the percentage of young people aged 12-20 who had a major depressive episode in the previous year had increased 37 percent between 2005 and 2014. In addition to the classic pressures of growing up, these adolescents have more access to a wider variety of information and ideas than any previous generation. Technology constantly bombards today’s teens with messages about national news events and global issues that they may not yet have context to interpret. The pervasive expectation to respond can translate into significant confusion and pressure.

Of course, it is impossible to eliminate stress from a teen’s life. Indeed, it is not even desirable. A recent study by the University of Montreal shows that students who experience some stress are more likely to achieve academic success. Stressors are often the result of conflicting priorities and thus can inspire people to find new solutions in balancing responsibilities and expectations. This process helps young adults develop resilience to manage the daily ups and downs of life. Students with deep anxiety, however, need extra support in accomplishing this goal.

Some young people try to soothe anxiety with counterproductive behaviors. Parents can recognize when a young adult needs additional support by watching for these cues:

  • Sudden loss of interest in activities,
  • Significant increase in playing video games or surfing the internet,
  • Spending less time with friends,
  • Major shifts in eating or sleeping habits,
  • Increased use of alcohol or drug use,
  • Regularly skipping classes or school.

Parents may employ a variety of strategies and counselors to address these issues. Sometimes, however, situations intensify. Many families are unaware of the many specialized organizations that combine therapeutic support and academic curricula to help young adults regain stability and continue their educations. The right change of setting—even during the middle of the school year—can often help students make dramatic life changes. My professional expertise places me at the intersection between the educational world and behavioral services. Based on the number of families who reach out in the late fall and early winter, I’ve learned that the back-to-school months are frequent triggers to bring underlying conditions to a head. Of course, I’m available year-round to support students. Recognizing the symptoms of anxiety as early as possible is the best strategy for helping everyone experience a healthy and successful school year.

Jeremy McGeorge specializes in serving families whose children need therapeutic services as part of their educational plan. He is also Bertram's point person on sustainable education. He can be reached at jeremy@thebertramgroup.com