Even before the books are cracked and the tests are passed out, back to school can cause anxiety for some teens. Here’s how you can help them adjust and manage their stress.

By Jordana Handler

BACK TO SCHOOL IS A MONUMENTAL TIME for most teens. Whether they are going to high school or university for the first time or just moving up a grade, there is a certain amount of stress that comes with change.

Jess, a mother of two from Toronto, noticed that her daughter was becoming withdrawn and anxious right before her first year of high school. As the weeks passed by, she became more and more nervous. She became withdrawn and quiet and expressed her fear and anxieties with Jess. Jess felt that she needed to step in and help but wondered, as many parents do, where to begin.

Dr. Greer Kirshenbaum is a neuroscientist based out of Toronto who focuses on stress and development. She is a huge advocate of addressing stress in your teen’s development and helping guide them through managing it. She says back to school is a peak time for stress in teens because it marks a huge transition for them and a big change in their routine.

Stress during adolescence is inevitable, but high, prolonged, or unpredictable periods of stress can become a significant risk factor for mental illness in teens. “Stress is a very real experience for teens,” says Kirshenbaum.

“The adolescent brain, and especially emotion and cognition brain areas, function in an entirely different way compared to children or adults.” She says the teenage brain has heightened emotionality, heightened stress responses and more sensitivity to fearful stimuli, and parents should be tuned into their teen’s emotional life (as best as possible)
to help manage stress.

Stress can look different on everyone, depending on the individual. There are generally “hot” and “cold” reactions to stress. Hot reactions occur when the primitive emotional systemtakes over behaviour and include irritability, impulsivity and anger. Cold reactions occur when the emotional system is frozen and signs can include lethargy, shutting down communication, self-isolation and sleeping. Dramatic changes in weight and eating habits are another
red flag. “It is very difficult to know if your child is experiencing a “normal” amount of stress as a result of their developing adolescent brain, so communication is key,” says Kirshenbaum.

Establish an open communication. Maintaining an emotional connection with your teen is essential. Don’t ask them generic questions like “How was your day?” You will never learn about their emotions this way. Instead, ask, “What made you feel good today?” “What made you frustrated today?” “What was the best and worst part of your day?” Having these discussions in the car where your teen does not have to look you in the eye is the best way to get them to talk. Once you know what is bothering them, you can problem solve together.

Become an active listener. Don’t criticize or solve all of your teen’s problems. Listening attentively and reflecting back emotions is a huge stress reliever.

Don’t judge or control. You must realize you are entering a stage of separation between you and your child. Your teen’s brain is under renovation as they begin to emerge as an individual. They will feel less stressed if you accept this process and don’t judge or control your teen’s choices.

Prioritize exercise and nutrition as a family. Exercise is the world’s best stress management tool. Go to a community centre or gym regularly as a family, do exercise classes with your teen or encourage them to do a physical activity with their friends.

Make sure they sleep. Teen sleep is very precious. Encourage your child to have as regular a bedtime as possible—or at least as much sleep as they need. The amount of sleep that a teen needs can vary, so pay attention to what your teen’s sleeping habits are. A great way to encourage a healthy night’s sleep is to have a bit of downtime
before hitting the sack. A no-phone policy an hour before bed helps the brain relax and settle down (and encourages your teen to do more productive things like read or talk).

Go wild. Spend vacations and free time in green spaces and wilderness. Nature has a big calming effect on the brain. Just a few minutes of fresh air per day can have a huge impact on reducing stress. Invite your teen to take a walk with you or play outside. Bonus points: fresh air will help them sleep better, too.

TO HELP HER DAUGHTER, Jess talked to her about the perceived challenges and fears related to entering high school. She made sure to really listen and she helped to address any issues that she felt she could offer some insight to. Jess did not correct her daughter and she was also realistic about the situation—she knew that her daughter’s back to school stress was a real issue and encouraged her daughter to find outlets in which to deal with it. In the end, she was not able to solve her daughter’s stress, but she was able to extend a helping hand and provide ways for her daughter to cope. And, as a parent, that is sometimes all we can really hope for.