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Back-to-School Anxiety for Teens Entering High School

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

For many teens, finally making it to high school is a dream come true. It’s something they look forward to from the moment they see all the older kids and teenagers having fun and exciting high school adventures in movies and on television. Compared to middle school and elementary school, they see starting high school as a rite of passage.

They get to be more independent. They get lockers, and though most have these in middle school, some don’t. And it’s a big deal. They get to decide where to eat lunch and how to get from one class to the next. They get these amazing things called free periods or study halls. And they get to go real-deal pep rallies for the basketball and football teams. They get to go to homecoming, prom, and all the other fun things they’ve anticipated for years.

They wonder if they’ll stumble across some type of adventure – because in movies and on TV, there’s always adventure.

There may even be vampires, werewolves, and the supernatural. Think of shows from the 90s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and contemporary shows like The Vampire Diaries and Sabrina.

There may be drama and mystery. Think of contemporary shows like Riverdale or The Outer Banks.

There’s also the chance that classmates and teachers might break out in song for any reason at all, like in Glee or High School Musical.

While we hate to break it to those teens, we have to say that it’s unlikely they’ll encounter mythical creatures, real-crime mysteries, or a production number when they walk through the front door on day one.

Maybe. But probably not.

And that real list above – the independence, the navigating between classes solo, the pep rallies, the dances – doesn’t excite some teens.

Instead, it makes them anxious.

How to Handle the Nerves

This article is for the rising high schooler who’s nervous and anxious about all that. About the independence, the social anarchy/Lord of the Flies element in hallways between classes, the loud pep rallies, the confusion around who asks who to dances, and whether clubs are really about what they say they are or a new and more confusing layer of exclusive cliques. This is for the ones who wonder whether they should go to a silly dance anyway, go to football games, or even try to make friends and fit in.

This article is also for teens diagnosed with an anxiety disorder who want to do all those things but have symptoms that will make it all a challenge. This is for the teens who may have received treatment at a residential treatment center for adolescents with anxiety, or received outpatient treatment, support in an intensive outpatient program (IOP), or support in a partial hospitalization program (PHP).

For teen’s who’ve been in treatment, it’s time to put your coping skills into action.

You can do this.

You got this.

We know you worked hard to get where you are, and you can make it through every day just fine. It may take some planning, but you can do it.

And the thing is, we think teens with and without clinical anxiety should do some of the exact same things in the lead-up to the first day of school. The teens with anxiety need to revisit their specific tools and techniques before doing these things, but we think they should do them, because we know they can help.

Ready for our list?

Here goes.

How to Handle Back to School Anxiety: Five Tips for New High Schoolers

1. Do All the Things.

At this point, you or your parents have probably received a hundred and one emails from your school or your school district. The emails tell you about all the things. Here’s what we mean:

Do the Orientation.

Some schools have an orientation day for new students, and some schools have entire orientation weeks. These days and weeks are important, because you get to step foot in the school, meet teachers, meet coaches, and meet peers. Teens with anxiety can also identify – and start developing strategies to handle – possible triggers in person.

Check out the Clubs.

One of our parents took their teen to high school orientation last week, and here’s a list of the clubs and special activities available:

    • Science Club
    • Technology Club
    • Engineering Club
    • Drama Club
    • TV/Video Club
    • LGBTQ Club
    • Anime Club
    • Debate Team
    • French, Spanish, Chinese Clubs
    • Debate Team
    • National Honors Art Club
    • Student Government
    • Yearbook Club

….and that’s not including sports like volleyball, lacrosse, swimming, tennis, football, ultimate frisbee, golf, basketball, track and field, or baseball. All those were represented, too.

Do the Tours.

If you’re nervous about finding your classes, finding your locker, or getting lost on the way from lunch to third period, taking a tour is the answer. They’re usually led by friendly, well-meaning juniors or seniors who’ve been exactly where you are now and want to make your first few days in high school as easy and stress-free as possible. They can tell you all the shortcuts, which doors may be locked, which bathrooms are cleanest (and which to avoid), and all the other insider information only a current student would know.

Do the Special Days.

If you’re a rising freshman, they may have an entire day just for you. You should go. It’s possible you’ll get concrete answers to almost everything that makes you anxious. And if you don’t get all the answers, these are the days when you can ask the questions important to you. The people that run these days – like the teens who do the tours – are there to help you. Take advantage of that, and ask for help if you need it.

2. Read All the Emails.

This goes for the parents, too. We know, we know: you get a million. But you need to read them, because they may contain information that makes life easier. This year, information about coronavirus is important. Do you need to wear a mask? Is there social distancing? If you think you’re sick, what should you do?

3. Identify Your Allies.

You can do this in-person on the days we talk about above, or you can do this online with faculty directories and contact information for student clubs. Do you need tutoring? Find out who can help. Are you an LGBTQ+ teen worried about finding allies? Reach out to them in-person or online – your school probably has a club for you. Are you a music prodigy? Go find the band or orchestra teacher and let them know you’re coming and ready to play your heart out. Are you a drama kid, a computer kid, or a photo buff? Check out the clubs and find your tribe: all this can happen before your first day.

4. Familiarize Yourself With The Building(s).

This is related to the items above, like doing all the tours, but this is something you can do on your own during one of the registration days. Get your schedule, find your classrooms, and plan your routes. But don’t just plan them, actually walk them yourself. Find out how long it takes to get from the room to room, from lunch to class, from class to the locker rooms, or from your last class to your quickest way off campus. This will make it easier in the first week, when the halls will be crowded with students and have a completely different feel. Be prepared: if you go to school in an old building the hallways will be cramped, and jam-packed. Kids with anxiety need to be ready for this, and have their coping mechanisms ready to deploy.

5. Do All of the Above With Friends.

We mean the orientation days, checking out the clubs, the tours, and the special days. If you’re nervous or anxious about those days, find a sympathetic, friendly classmate and arrange for both your families to do all those days together. And if you’re in a new town going to a new school and you don’t know anyone, you can still find peer support. Reach out to the school to arrange a tour with a friendly student ahead of time. Be persistent, and you’ll find someone who understands, and who wants to help.

The main point of all the tips above is preparation. Whether you’re nervous about school or have an anxiety disorder, planning ahead will help. For students with typical nerves, getting an idea of what your first day will be like will help you arrive confident and ready to win the day. For students with an anxiety disorder, identifying potential triggers, identifying allies and safe spaces, and preparing all your coping mechanisms, tools, and strategies ahead of time can help you arrive confident and ready to win the day too. At very least, knowing all of that beforehand and having plans at the ready will increase your chance of surviving the day without a major incident.

A Chance to Reinvent Yourself

There’s another thing about going to a new school that’s worth mentioning. It’s a chance to leave your old baggage behind. Some students go from kindergarten to middle school with the same group of students, but arrive at high school – where students might come from middle schools you’ve never heard of – to find a large group of people they’ve never met. If you’re going to a large high school, the kids you know may be a small percentage of the overall population. This may make you nervous, but we encourage you to reframe that: it’s chance to assert yourself, too. It’s an opportunity to put your best foot forward and be the person you want to be.

And if you have an anxiety disorder, it’s a golden opportunity to prove to yourself that all the hard work you did during therapy and treatment can work in the real world.

We know you can do it, because we see students succeed at this time of year, every year.

We believe in you.

You got this.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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