Back-to-school time finds parents and children organizing clothes and uniforms, picking out school supplies and decking out lockers and dorm rooms. We talked with local educators, counselors and advisors who remind us that, in addition to stocking up on school supplies, filling kids’ emotional backpacks with coping skills and communication tools is prep time well spent.
Mary Beth Wiig
Lead counselor and counseling department chair, Minnetonka High School
The first day of high school can cause a tidal wave of emotions for teens. “I think, especially with freshmen, the No. 1 thing is to feel socially connected,” Wiig says. For that age group, she says, it can feel more important to know who you’ll sit with at lunch than who your English teacher is. “Who am I going to know when I look out at that sea of faces?”
As students navigate the world of high school, Wiig says, it’s important for all parties to realize that teens will experience ups and downs. “And that’s part of growing,” says Wiig, who has over 29 years of experience as a counselor. High school might present the first time a C appears on a report card, or the first time they’re cut from a sports team. “Some of that is just life lessons,” she says. Adjusting to high school also includes adjusting to new workloads and higher expectations.
When issues arise—even something as simple as changing a class schedule—Wiig says it’s critical that students address issues with school staff or coaches, and advocate for themselves. “That’s part of the maturing process,” she says. Parents have an important role in monitoring, without taking over, their children’s emotions and behaviors. Wiig says it’s time to seek additional assistance if students begin avoiding involvement, academic performance is consistently decreasing or there is a pattern of negative behavior.
Once the high school years begin, parents might put too much pressure on their children to build their resume for college application time, and they should exercise caution. Freshmen, especially, need plenty of time to get academically grounded. “Kids pick up on that,” Wiig says. Freshmen are just navigating day to day, she says. “Looking ahead [to college] for a ninth-grader can be overwhelming.”
Co-founder, Elevate Wellness
Elevate Wellness’ mission is to help teens and young adults with positive thinking. “Using research-driven strategies, we aim to teach skills to combat toxic thinking and negative influences while increasing resiliency, self-confidence, positive thinking and overall wellness,” co-founder Abby Master says.
Focusing on middle and high school girls, Elevate conducts a nine-week program in the Twin Cities that meets once a week. “Our mission is to teach the girls how they can each live a more satisfying life, to help them socially and academically,” Master says. “We do this by building strong personal relationships with each participant to help them achieve their wellness goals. We root in the science of how our brains are designed to help us be positive thinkers and teach tangible strategies through wellness topics, including life balance, stress management, food, physical activity and sleep.” (There are also individual and mini groups for teens, both boys and girls.)
Anxiety and fear float around everyone’s emotional field from time to time, but parents should trust their instincts to recognize when a child is carrying too much. “Many of our students today carry some anxiety and fear constantly,” Master says. “It’s important for kids to recognize that they are having anxiety and actively seek moments of the day when they are allowing their brains to relax (without a screen to stimulate their brains). Whenever anxiety and fear interferes with social or academic success, big or small, it’s important to be proactive and not allow it to cycle into a negative spiral.”
Social worker, Scenic Heights Elementary School
Preparation for the new school year begins at the end of the previous academic year, says Faber, who encourages families to help kids apply what they learned over the past year to summertime activities, like reading and cooking.
Over the summer, Faber says routine is king. “I think that’s critical,” she says. Assign chores to emphasize routine, organization and independence. Drive by the school and play on the playground to begin familiarizing younger children with the space. Faber also recommends using bibliotherapy—providing children with books about the first days of school—especially for kindergarteners who are brand-new to school. Edina author Nancy Carlson’s books cover kids’ worries and emotions well. Faber suggests designating a quiet homework space, stocking a cupboard with healthy foods so kiddos can pack their own snacks and lunches, and encouraging them to be “backpack ready” the night before a school day.
Once school begins, Faber explains that the transition takes more time than adults might realize. “The kids are exhausted the first several months of school,” she says. In light of this, parents should ease up on the amount of autumn after-school activities on their child’s calendar, especially for kids in grades K–2. They should also listen for anxieties and be mindful of new friendships, to ensure they are healthy and supportive.
Of course, Faber says, fear and anxiety are within the normal range of human emotion. If your child’s stress or anxiety begins to impact sleep or eating habits in the long term, extends into the weekends, increases in intensity or results in struggles getting out the door in the morning, it’s probably time to explore the issues with a counselor or pediatrician. “These are hard calls to make,” she admits.
Private-practice counselor and consultant
As a private-practice counselor, staff member at Adler Graduate School and former high school counselor, Katie Dorn is tuned into teens. “I really have a heart for mood disorders with high school and college-age kids,” she says. Often, parents need to check their own anxiety levels, and work to reduce their own stress. “Kids are very perceptive,” she says, and parents should model good behavior and mindfulness—practice gratitude, engage in physical activity and take breaks from technology, for example.
When parents hover over their children, kids might experience an increased sense of anxiety, because they can begin to feel incapable of addressing their own problems and concerns. Parents who always swoop in to rescue their kids can make their kids’ anxiety worse, but there are times when Mom or Dad’s help can be really useful. Dorn offers these tips for parents:
- Ask questions.
- Listen to responses.
- Help children identify their feelings.
- Reflect the responses, so kids know they’re being heard.
- Ask what can be done to help them.
- Encourage and empower.
- Assure them by saying, “I’m here if you need me.”
Dorn also says parents should make it OK for their children to make mistakes. “To let them struggle through is OK,” Dorn assures. “No one learns unless they make mistakes.” Once those mistakes pop up, she cautions parents not to sit in judgement of their children. Of course, if a teen is having trouble sleeping or can’t complete tasks and homework, it’s probably time to take a closer look, and that can include reaching out to school counselors or a therapist like Dorn, who uses neuroscience techniques to lead individual and group sessions that help both children and adults cope with anxiety.