Boy working at desk after returning to in-person learning.

Heading Back to School: The Good, the Bad, and the Totally Unknown

This year’s back-to-school season is shaping up to be yet another uniquely-COVID experience for teens and parents. Whether your school district or school has decided to restart extracurriculars only, move to a hybrid model, or move fully back to in-person learning, we don’t have to tell you that this transition might be tough. This article reviews some of the reactions that teens are having to this transition, and describes what you can do as a parent to support your teen as you navigate this transition together. 

How are you feeling?

As parents, it’s probably an understatement to say we have mixed emotions about this year’s back-to-school. We might feel excited to have a moment in the house alone, anxious about our teen’s health or mental health as they return to school, or frustrated with the uncertainty about what this transition might actually look like or when it might happen. 

Our teens are right there with us! Our Joon Teen Advisory Board (who you can meet on our Instagram) described feeling anxious, excited, and overwhelmed when faced with the prospect of returning to in-person class. You might have already heard your teen describing some or all of these reactions, and likely some that are unique to their personal experience. If not, check out the conversation starters at the bottom of this post to help your teen explore how they are feeling. 

If your teen hasn’t articulated their thoughts or feelings on the return to school, that is normal too! The most common way teens let us know how they are feeling is through their behavior. For example, your teen might be arguing for more in-person friend time than you are comfortable with, resisting steps towards gearing up for the transition to in-person school like an earlier wake-up time, or becoming less engaged with online schooling. When situations like these arise, we can support our teens in articulating the thoughts, worries, or feelings behind these confusing or troubling behaviors using Emotion Coaching (if you are new to Emotion Coaching, this article provides a great 5-step overview). 

In practice, this might look like:

  • Recognizing our teen’s emotion: For example, noticing our teen is becoming frustrated during a conversation about moving their bedtime and wake time earlier to accommodate time to get ready and out the door in the morning. 
  • Recognizing your teen’s expression of emotion as an opportunity: Take a moment and recognize your own feelings. Are you nervous about this transition? Expecting it to be rough? Frustrated that your teen is already pushing back? That’s all completely legitimate! The fact that you both are feeling apprehensive, anxious, or irritated about this situation is an opportunity for connection.
  • Listen with empathy and validate your teen’s feelings: Focus on the feeling first. We will get to the behavior in a moment! You might say something like ‘One of the only good things from COVID has been being able to sleep in and go to school in your PJ’s, it’s got to be really frustrating to think about losing that.’
  • Problem solve or set limits, if need be: After exploring your teen’s thoughts and feelings, shift to problem solving the situation together or restating limits. Your teen still has to get to school on time! In this situation, you might say, ‘I’m concerned that if we don’t gradually move your bedtime and wake up time back, that that first day of school is going to be really rough. We need to get to a 9:30 bedtime and 6:30 wake up by the start of school, do you have ideas about how we can get there gradually?’

Helping our teens explore their thoughts and feelings about this transition is a huge first step, making it easier for you both to be on the same team facing this transition together! 

Schedule a free consultation. Speak with one of our care coordinators and learn more about working with a Joon therapist.

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Getting out of the house 

The most consistent concern our Teen Advisory Board members described was having to change day-to-day routines. For many teens, getting to attend school in sweats, from the comfort of home, and sleeping-in until class starts has been one redeeming factor about COVID. Elsie (11th grade) described thinking about the transition away from remote learning like this: 

“I’ve gotten so accustomed to online school - waking up ten minutes before class, PJs, just four hours of live class daily, little social interaction - that I’m honestly pretty nervous about going back to in-person learning. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely want to get back since I know the education will be better and I’ll get to see my friends again, but I am a little stressed about the early mornings, busier schedule, and longer days.” 

As Elsie describes, many teens are not only facing the idea of going back to in-person learning, but also having all of their extracurricular activities start up again too. That’s a lot at once! In this instance, the ‘problem solving’ step of emotion coaching nervousness or feeling ‘overwhelmed’ by returning to school might include co-creating a schedule of activities or set of daily expectations for your teen, that gradually increases over time. For example, you might start pushing back bedtime and wake up times like the emotion coaching example above describes or implement a consistent after-school schedule in anticipation of busier nights.  

As you start to shift back to typical routines, also make sure that you schedule in extra downtime for your teen. Change and uncertainty is exhausting, and there is a lot of it right now. Let your teen know that you know they are probably feeling overwhelmed or tired and that you want to give them space for self-care as you start to make these changes. Ask them what activities they would like to schedule into their nights so they can take a break, and then make room for them. If your teen is having difficulty with motivation, check out this Joon webinar for ideas on how you can make the goal of transition back to school more motivating and personally relevant for your teen.  

Back to school… kind of

When teens do return to school, it’s going to look different. They might have to sit between physical dividers, 6-feet away, not talk or stop in the hallways, or eat in the lunchroom. These changes take away most of what teens love about school. Many teens are also experiencing a hybrid-model of learning, meaning that they have to mentally switch between expectations for in-person learning and remote learning multiple times per week. Some families might even have a choice between in-person and remote options, leading to potential conflict between what you and your teen prefer. This combination of added complexity and missing out on the ‘good parts’ of school like social interaction, can make the transition back to school disappointing and overwhelming. 

Our Teen Advisory Board members described having a lot of difficulty bouncing between in-person and online schooling in hybrid models, but were also excited to be able to talk to teachers and peers in person:

“The worst part of returning to campus is having to swap between online classes and in person classes because I am in a hybrid. I never get into a rhythm.” -Justin (10th grade)
“Personally, I have found the return to the classroom pretty overwhelming, especially my first few days back. However, as I’ve been adjusting to the change, I have realized the benefits of being in the classroom: it is much easier to meet with teachers to check in with them about my assignments and ask questions. Additionally, I have had a hard time in the past speaking up over zoom meetings, while in the classroom I have found it to be much easier to participate in class discussions because there is no need to “un-mute” and deal with the hassle of zoom or other online meeting spaces." - Izzy (11th grade)

As you anticipate changes with your teen make sure to explore both the things they are excited about and the things they are nervous about. If your teen is really excited and doesn’t want to talk about potential negatives, it's okay to be excited with your teen, even if you aren’t sure that in-person school is going to live up to their expectations. If your teen can’t think of anything good about returning to in-person school, it’s also okay to validate these feelings. Having the conversation is what matters, because it communicates to your teen that this is a topic you are open to talking about, whatever their experience ends up being.

Anxiety and the unknown

Anxiety has been one of the most common health impacts related to COVID for teens, with 19-36% of teens showing new or worsening anxiety during the pandemic. Unfortunately, anxiety tends to intensify in periods of stress and in uncertain or unfamiliar situations, both of which apply to the transition back to school. 

If your teen is already experiencing anxiety about the transition back to school, encourage them to talk about it with their Joon therapist. When these worries come up at home, our natural parenting instinct is usually to try to reduce our child’s distress, often by trying to convince our teens not to worry. For example, we might say things like ‘There’s no way you can get sick at school’ ‘You’ll be fine’ or ‘Everybody is feeling nervous about going back!’ While this is fine for occasional worries, if you find yourself reassuring your teen about similar topics multiple times per day, it might be time to switch tactics. Instead of reassuring your teen, validate their emotion (‘It sounds like you are feeling pretty anxious about getting sick at school.’ or ‘You sound pretty worried about not getting to be with your friend group at lunch’) and then ask your teen to come up with a possible solution, or to use therapy skills for coping with their anxiety (like ‘riding the wave’ of anxiety, using coping skills, or practicing an exposure). 

If your teen isn’t sharing worries about returning to school it’s still a good idea to put the idea on the table that anxiety might come up. During your conversation about the return to school, you can say something like ‘I was nervous to go back to work, are you feeling nervous about going back to school?’ or ‘I bet it’s uncomfortable not to know what school will be like, are you nervous about knowing what to do?’ Again, just broaching the topic lets your teen know you are comfortable with this subject, and signals that they can come to you if anything comes up.

Conversation starters for going back to school

  • How are you feeling about going back to in-person school? What are you excited about? What are you least looking forward to?
  • You’ve already been through so much change this year, how can I make the transition back to in-person learning easier for you?
  • Your schedule is about to get really busy again! I’d love to figure out your schedule together so that we make sure to fit in things that are important to you, too, like (video games, downtime, reading, TV time, etc). When is a good time to talk for 15ish minutes?

March 18, 2021
Michelle Kuhn, PhD | Clinical Advisor

Michelle Kuhn, PhD | Clinical Advisor

Michelle Kuhn, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from The George Washington University and her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Kuhn provides services to children, adolescents, and their families, utilizing evidence-based behavioral and cognitive-behavioral approaches. She has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, suicidality and self-injury, attention and behavior problems, and trauma. Dr. Kuhn also researches new treatments for children and their families in the field of neurodevelopment disorders.

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