Stressed to the max!

I’m one who considers it “culture shock” when my family returns from vacation. First of all, it takes about three days to wind down once I get where I’m going. It takes those three days to eventually realize that I’m not on work-mother-maid duty anymore, and I finally relax. Returning poses more of a challenge for my family: Oh, the shock of it all! There’s no one to make the bed, for goodness sake! Frantic schedules once again become the norm, and I’m forced to regroup. Sometimes, my stress level starts to rise before I even step through the doorway.

Teens experience similar emotions as the school year approaches after a long summer vacation. Even if their summer was filled with volunteer or work opportunities, a more lax schedule with time to surf, hike, or hang out was likely in the mix. Therefore, as the demanding school year draws near, many teens begin to experience high stress levels. Parents can help their teens get a handle on stress before it wreaks havoc on the teen’s psyche.

Why back-to-school stress?

Maybe she’s worried about academic success or acceptance to a club she is interested in joining. Sometimes, it’s a combination of social and academic stressors.

“Often, teens feel stress about the start of the school year because their schedule is quite different during the summer,” reports Richard N. Shadick, PhD, director of Pace University Counseling Center and adjunct professor of psychology. “They are used to fewer demands and expectations. Also, during the summer, some teens tend to lose their social network. This makes for an awkward transition and the need to get reacquainted with peers after much time has passed.”

Teens might be concerned about considerable changes as well, such as more intense academic loads or new school environments.

“Depending on the year, teens may be facing major challenges, such as starting high school, applying to colleges, or looking for work,” points out Shadick.

Don’t underestimate stress

Stress levels can escalate, resulting in teens making bad choices as they search for ways to cope. According to studies conducted in 2007 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 73 percent of teens surveyed reported that school stress was the primary reason for their drug use. A supplemental study showed that only seven percent of parents believe that teens will use drugs to cope with stress. Parents may be underestimating the effect that stress has on their teens.

“Signs that your teen’s stress is getting out of hand include drastic changes in their grades, personality, or habits. For example, if a neat and orderly teen starts to become disheveled and disorganized, parents may need to be concerned,” warns Shadick. Parents should seek professional help if their teen is extremely anxious, seems unusually depressed, or exhibits signs of substance abuse.

Parents can help

Parents can help minimize their teen’s stress level, but the first step is to acknowledge the stress and to take it seriously.

“Encourage your teen to stay in contact with their friends from school so that they will have the social support they need when they return to classes,” suggests Shadick.

Additional ideas for a stress-free start:

• New school? Your teen should “walk” her schedule before the first day

• Great confidence boosters: a fresh haircut or new outfit

• Schedule downtime

• Teens should abide by “school night” curfews a week prior to school starting.

Tips and tales

“As school starts, I get fearless about taking things off our list if I see the stress levels getting too high. We also plan hikes or other nature-related activities because this is calming and refreshing to one’s spirits.”

Wendy Urban-Mead, Staatsburg, NY

“If my daughter starts getting anxious about the beginning of the school year, I talk with her about it — we take a “picture” walk in her mind.” Terri Hein, Poughkeepsie, NY

Share your ideas

Upcoming topic: What to do when your teen gets mixed up with the “wrong” crowd.

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Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and child and adolescent development. She is the mother of two teenagers.