What Are Teens Really Thinking As They Head Back To School?
Editor's Note: Arden is a member of the Choices Teen Advisory Board—a group of amazing teens who we consult for feedback and insight for stories. She'll be blogging for us every month and giving us an inside look at what's really going on in the teenage brain.
I had a great summer—I learned some, I relaxed some, I saw some friends and family, and I soaked up some vitamin D.
In about a week, I am returning to high school for my junior year. And I’m going to be honest with you: I am incredibly stressed out.
My parents are baffled. “You just had a break,” they say! “What more could you possibly want?”
Well, I’m here to tell you what’s up.
It’s completely natural to be stressed about returning to school. There are two main reasons: social pressures and academic pressures.
I wonder, when I go back to school, will people look at me differently? A common narrative after a fulfilling, exploratory teenage summer goes something like this: “I feel like I’ve changed over the summer. I’m more confident, more true to myself. I even think I look better!” Or maybe the opposite happens: “I’ve lost confidence, I’ve lost direction. The summer has left me with a big dose of confusion.” Either way one question remains—will anyone else notice?
As high school students, we are constantly reinventing ourselves. We want to be more interesting, attractive, and popular. And, if we’re being honest, we also want to be more interesting, attractive, and popular than other kids.
Coming back from summer, I worry: will other people notice how much I’ve changed? Will other people have changed? Worse, what if my friends have changed more than me! Will I still be friends with them? Catching up with people after the summer is exciting, but it can also be a source of stress. Should I have kept in touch more? All of these questions and more are circling around in our brains. Social insecurity is universal at this age.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that a parent or teacher can do to ease this stress. It’s natural, and part of adolescence. One of the most important reasons to go to school in the first place is because it’s where you learn to interact with your peers and even where you begin to define your own identity.
The only real thing that an adult can do to help is to be conscious of this. Does your kid usually like to talk about things like this? If yes, then ask them more about it. Reassure them that if they are confident in themselves, other people will notice. Remind them that if they are truly confident in themselves, it won’t even matter if others notice. Let them know that you love them, and that you think they’re going to take this school year by storm.
If your kid generally avoids discussing topics like these with you, just try to be sensitive. The more conscious we are of the sources of stress in each other’s lives, the better we are at creating positive and supportive environments. (But you should probably still remind your kid that you love them!)
Once we’ve processed the social stress of returning back to school, we stumble back to the “real” reason we are going back to school: learning. While some teens may have spent the summer working in labs, learning foreign languages, and writing academic papers, they are the minority. Many others have been working mindless summer jobs, driving around with their friends, or just hanging out—whatever that means.
We are going to have to dust off the parts of our brains that deal with writing papers, meeting deadlines, and studying for tests. And we’re going to have to re-enter the reality that there are consequences to our actions: test grades lead to grades on transcripts, and transcripts get sent to colleges. As a junior, the SAT is front-and-center in my mind.
Going into the school year, encourage your kid to get off on the right foot. Don’t put back-to-school shopping off until the last minute. Make sure they have everything they need prepared for the first day. Remind them that they don’t have to deal with everything alone.
As young people, we often feel that our stress and our worries aren’t taken seriously. Yes, we aren’t paying taxes or mortgages or trying to get health insurance, but it is still incredibly validating when we are asked: “What’s on your mind? Are you stressed about your classes? Is there anything I can do?”
In the end, the right way of dealing with the stress of your child going back to school is the same as dealing with everything else involving your child: Be a good listener. Let them know if they’re right; let them know if they’re wrong, but kindly. Let them know that what they’re stressed about is valid, and offer to help in any way you can.