Why Some Teens Are Having A Hard Time Adjusting Back to School
“Back to School Feels Like Back to Hell.”
“Figuring out what to wear every day is exhausting.”
As an adolescent therapist, these are just a few things I have heard from my teenage clients. Many adolescents say they are looking forward to it academically but not socially. For many, a return to school means a return to social pressure. Here are three things to consider as kids struggle to transition back to school.
For a year and a half, adolescents have been able to control their social circles and surround themselves with the people they choose. While they remained connected virtually and through social media, they could choose who they physically saw and interacted with. School does not provide that same opportunity. Their schedule is created for them, and they have no say in who ends up in their classes or lunch sections. This unfortunately means you could end up in class with someone you love or hate. Think of going to a party where you aren’t sure if you will know anyone. Most of us would choose not to go. Kids don’t have that luxury. School isn’t a choice and whether you have friends in your class or not, you are expected to attend. It’s easy to see how this increases feelings of uncomfortability, worry, and dread.
Not much thought goes into a Zoom wardrobe. All that is about to flip, and they are anxious about their looks, fitting in, and how people view them. Many of us can agree that it’s nice working remotely and not having to put as much thought into what we wear. The focus is on comfort rather than looks. I for one miss my legging when I have to hit the office! Adolescents have had a break from constantly worrying about their appearance and quite frankly aren’t looking forward to the daily popularity contest. Add to that the many mental, emotional, and physical changes take place during adolescence and you’ve got some highly self-conscious returning students. Puberty hits, hormones run wild, and looks change significantly during adolescence making some students even more self-conscious about returning to school as the new version of themselves.
Adolescents feel like kindergarteners again. Especially those who missed out on huge transitional years such as freshman or middle schoolers. Middle school is typically grades 6 – 8. If the pandemic hit while a student was in sixth grade, they have missed the majority of middle school. Same with 9th graders. We have students returning to school as juniors who have barely been in the high school and sophomores who never had a typical freshman year. This is critical to understand and realize. They feel like they are starting school for the first time and have the same worries as a new student. Being unfamiliar with our environment makes us feel vulnerable and generates worry. Consider this at an age where students are hyper focused on fitting in and being accepted. In short, they don’t want to look or feel dumb by not knowing where to go or what to do once they hit school. As adults, we can navigate unfamiliarity a bit better because most of us aren’t as concerned about finding our place in the world. Asking for directions or help doesn’t feel embarrassing because we aren’t as worried about the perceptions of others.
So, what can we do?
Reach out to the school. They may have special programming for returning students such as additional open houses and orientation events. Events that are typically geared toward freshman may be available to upperclassmen as well to help them get reacclimated and feel comfortable.
Work with the school counselor. School counselors may know of available programs such as peer support and mentoring. You may be able to work with school staff to arrange a walk through prior to the first day of school. The more comfortable we can help our kids feel the better. If they have a sense of the building, their class locations, and teachers, they will feel much more comfortable.
If possible, arrange for them to get a ride to school at least in the morning. Students who ride the bus have to get up earlier than kids who get a ride to school. This is a pretty big shift from rolling out of bed and jumping online. Providing a ride may help with the morning transition and ease some of the anxiety around getting up early, waiting for the bus, and figuring out who to sit with.
Lastly, do your best to listen. We often want to rationalize, give advice, and provide reassurance. These are all great things but sometimes leave kids feeling unheard. Allow them to discuss and explore their thoughts, feelings, and concerns before jumping in with any sage advice.