Stressful School Year? Use Summer to Help Your Student Manage Anxiety

Rear view of parent and teen sitting on grass, sharing music through headphones on a sunny dayIf your child or adolescent struggled with anxiety during the school year, now is an opportune time to address it. Take advantage of the summer break to give them the skills they need to manage stress, feel confident, regulate their emotional responses, maintain strong friendships, and—most importantly—feel better about themselves.

Not sure if your student has anxiety? Here are some common signs:

  • Excessive worry about a variety of issues, such as grades, appearance, peers, family matters, performance in sports/activities, homework, and tests
  • Physical symptoms such as upset stomach, vomiting, and headaches
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Changes in eating behavior
  • Inability to relax even when they recognize their fears are out of proportion or unreasonable
  • Treating themselves harshly and/or expecting perfection
  • Fear and avoidance of social situations
  • Disconnecting from friend groups
  • Mood swings and/or increase in irritability
  • Obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors

Trying to resolve these issues during the school year, when symptoms may be at their peak, can be challenging. Homework and tests are a constant, then add on any extracurricular commitments. There may be few opportunities for your student to decompress and learn from the last anxiety-producing experience before they happen upon the next one. Summer provides a (hopefully) more relaxed schedule to reflect on what creates anxious feelings and to practice and adopt effective ways of coping.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one form of treatment that has been found to be effective for anxiety (Otte, 2011). With the guidance of a trained counselor, CBT brings to the forefront the thoughts a person is having, the emotions that accompany those thoughts, and the behavior that results. Modification of just one of these variables can help improve the other two. Students can learn more effective ways to cope by examining faulty or irrational thoughts. For example, a young person with test anxiety may have a negative internal message that reminds them that they have no hope or confidence they can pass their tests. This negativity can spill over into areas such as homework, extracurricular activities, and friendships, leading to a prevailing sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and failure. The resulting behavior can include the symptoms listed above.

Taking time to challenge a student’s way of thinking and replace negative narratives with more reasonable and accurate self-statements can help them feel more capable and empowered.

Taking time to challenge a student’s way of thinking and replace negative narratives with more reasonable and accurate self-statements can help them feel more capable and empowered. Confidence helps build a sense of control and possibility, and in turn leads to adopting healthy behaviors in the face of all the ups and downs that come along.

It’s important to educate your student about anxiety so they understand everyone experiences it in varying degrees, thanks to the fight-or-flight response. The human brain is hardwired to assess for dangers and react to threats in the environment, an evolutionary survival mechanism (Schab, 2008). Helping your student understand that the fight-or-flight response is there for a good reason assures them that (1) they aren’t flawed and (2) opens the door to learning ways to turn the dial down so they aren’t constantly on high alert. Chronic anxiety builds up stress hormones that can, over time, cause emotional and physical problems.

According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey conducted in 2013, “Teens report that their stress level during the school year far exceeds what they believe to be healthy (5.8 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale) and tops adults’ average reported stress levels (5.1).” This summer, take the time to help your student better understand the anxiety that comes with all that stress, and partner with a therapist to develop strategies for building the confidence they need to manage it in the next school year.

References:

  1. American Psychological Association survey shows teen stress rivals that of adults. (2014, February 11). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/02/teen-stress.aspx
  2. Otte, C. (2011). Cognitive behavioral therapy in anxiety disorders: Current state of the evidence. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 13(4), 413–421.
  3. Schab, L. (2008). The anxiety workbook for teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nancy Warkentin Houdek, LPC, NCC, therapist in Farmington Hills, Michigan

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Audra

    Audra

    June 7th, 2017 at 8:09 AM

    What a wonderful and timely article for me and my kids!
    We always try to use the summer as a time to decompress and not even think about the crazy school year that we have left behind us.
    For us it is a good time to remain unscheduled and really a little more unregimented. I find that my kids usually need that down time just as much as I do.

  • benji

    benji

    June 7th, 2017 at 11:56 AM

    We just started some CBT sessions for my daughter last week- hoping that this will ease the tension of the last few school years and give her some new coping skills for middle school!

  • Christina

    Christina

    June 9th, 2017 at 10:25 AM

    I have talked to the pediatrician about this and she seems to believe that this is an unnecessary move. Her adherence to that belief makes me start to question whether or not we are even with the right physician because I don’t feel like she is even listening to what I have to say about how my child behaves and the things that I consider to be small and trivial that can trigger him. I feel like he needs some help outside of what I or his teachers can give to him but my pediatrician is not being helpful in getting us to the right people who might could help turn this around for us.

  • Avril

    Avril

    June 13th, 2017 at 3:10 PM

    Thankfully we have had some wonderful teachers all along the way who have helped us tremendously over the years. I will not say that it has always been easy but when you have people who support your decisions and who are able to help make life just a little bit easier for your anxious child, then you say your prayers for the blessings that have always somehow along the way helped you out when you needed them the most.

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