As schools fully reopen again, children, teens and parents are anticipating this transition with excitement and trepidation. The start of school year brings opportunities for new social connections, academic challenges and emotional growth. At Wellspring, we are particularly aware of the anxiety that can accompany this transition. Haley Baker, MFT has put together some excellent suggestions for helping you and your child navigate this transition. I suggest you read through these tips and talk with your child about their feelings as they adjust to school over the next few weeks.
At Wellspring we are now seeing adults and children of all ages in person in our San Rafael and Novato offices. We also continue to also offer online therapy to children, teens, adults and families. If you would like to schedule a consult with our client care coordinator you can use our new Calendly link here.
Simone Rodin, Ph.D., Director
Teens are social creatures by nature. Having regular practice in connecting, maintaining friendships, and learning to resolve conflicts with peers is a social imperative for their developmental stage. However, due to the social limitations put in place during the Covid-19 Pandemic, teens have had very limited opportunities to practice these formative life skills. So, as your teen is preparing to return to in-person learning at school, an environment ripe with distinct social rules, expectations, and comparisons among peers, they are likely experiencing more anxiety than ever about how they will “fit in” among the rest of their same-aged counterparts.
Social distance rules have allowed teens to avoid the anxiety that is experienced in social situations altogether. Although this has provided a temporary period of relief for socially anxious teens, anxiety grows exponentially in periods of avoidance and anticipation. You can expect that as your teen is thinking about re-entrance into the social sphere they may have thoughts of self-doubt and feelings of being ill-equipped to meet the social demands of their peers. To your teen, attending the first day of school this year may feel akin to being asked to start in the first game of the World Series when they haven’t played a baseball game in years – they’re out of shape, they don’t remember the social “plays” that worked for them in the past, and it feels like the whole world is watching.
While it is difficult, and even painful, to see our teens struggle with social anxiety that has been festering in the shelter-in-place landscape, there is a wonderful gift to be found in the face of this adversity. Teens are being given the opportunity to learn to sit in the presence of their social fears, to cope with the discomfort of their anxiety, and to question the conclusions that they have come to about themselves in the midst of their social worries. By being afraid and doing it anyways (the true definition of courage), our teens will realize that they are able to enter into new, undefined stages of their lives while tolerating the discomfort that accompanies this unknown territory.
Here are some tips for helping your teen to take their first steps into the new school year:
Start with smaller social goals
Encourage your teen to seek and take opportunities to gradually re-expose themselves to social interaction. These can be small exposures, such as texting or calling a friend, more moderate exposures, such as spending time with a friend or reaching out to a friend that they have not spoken to in awhile, or they can be larger exposures such as attending a group gathering with peers. Presently, the idea of returning to school and being surrounded by peers may feel insurmountable to your teen, but taking small steps towards that larger goal will allow them to begin to experience social success, which will directly challenge their self-doubt about being effective in social situations. No exposure is too small, because regardless of the degree of challenge, it is a step towards facing their social fears.
Support self-efficacy and challenge control
The voice of social anxiety insists that if we cannot be prepared for or control the outcome of any given social interaction, then we are likely doomed to experience a social failure of disastrous proportions, such as rejection, ridicule, or alienation. However, if we try to comfort socially anxious teens by simply re-assuring them that they will have more control than they believe, or by suggesting that they won’t experience these failures, we are only reinforcing the idea that they will not be able to handle social situations that are difficult or unexpected.
Instead of trying to convince your teen that they won’t experience any social hardships (they wouldn’t believe you anyways), it is helpful to empower them by reminding them of what social skills they do have, and to talk to them about how to respond and cope when they run into social conflicts. This is most effective when you can elicit this information from your teen, rather than identifying their strengths and coping skills for them. If their anxiety is causing them to be stuck in a negative mindset, it may help to offer a few examples of strengths and skills that you see in them, but only as a prompt for them to continue to identify these qualities within themselves. This will reinforce your teen’s ability to identify and implement their intrinsic qualities and skills, which takes attention and power away from the anxiety’s desire to control elements of the outside world.
Prepare for one day at a time
Thinking about how to navigate a single day at school is far less overwhelming than trying to make a survival plan for an entire school year. Instead of having conversations about how the school year may be as a whole, shift your teen’s focus to entering this new experience one day at a time. You can sit down and review details for the first day of school, such as their class schedule, who they may see at school, who they will eat lunch with, and what they want to wear for their first day. It is also helpful to include the topic of rest and recovery in this conversation. If your teen anticipates feeling stressed or tired at the end of their first day, ask them to think about some activities they can do after school to rest and calm their body. Depending on your teen, this may be physical exercise, a quiet activity, or doing something else that they enjoy. At the end of the first day, ask your teen to reflect on the events of the day, and to discuss their plans for the following day.
Ask for help when needed
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about new challenges into all of our lives, many of which have consequences that we are only now becoming aware of in hindsight. If your child or teen is struggling to navigate through the social and emotional impact of this unprecedented world event, they may benefit from meeting with a mental health therapist that can support them in coping with these new stressors and in embracing unexpected change as an opportunity for growth and personal development. At Wellspring Psychotherapy Center, we offer individual therapy for your child or teen, parent coaching and consultation sessions, and family therapy. Our therapists are eager to help you and your family through all of life’s transitions.
Haley Baker, LMFT has been helping children, teens, and families through both anticipated and unplanned transitions through her therapeutic work for over a decade. At Wellspring, Haley supports children and teens with social skills development and overcoming social anxiety through individual and group counseling. As the Clinical Lead, Haley provides individual, group, and family counseling, in addition to providing clinical supervision and consultation to the Wellspring team. She strives to use humor, compassion, and creativity to support the ongoing development of Wellspring staff and her clients.