As a therapist who specializes in adolescents it certainly is a challenge to help with anxiety, specifically freshman anxiety. This year is certainly unique for me because it not only impacts me professionally but also within my own house, as my oldest child will be a High School freshman this year.
In teaching the co-parenting class at CCD I reinforce with parents that necessity of predictability, consistency and structure – kids like to know what is going to happen. Walking in as a freshman is walking into the unknown. The Freshman mind is filled with stories of the horrors and joys of freshman year, but is unable to know which is fact and which is fiction and what their future will hold. So of course their anxiety will be heightened. It is expected and as parents we can help lessen their fears.
Here are my tips for parents of anxious freshman:
1. Teach your kids it is normal to be anxious in new settings – “Everyone was new once!”; reflect on your own experiences such as starting a new job and how you overcome the transition period.
2. Remember adolescents look to us, as parents, for what is normal. You may also be anxious about this transition. That’s ok. But address your own anxiety so it doesn’t increase their anxiety. The first role model children see is their parents. Lead by example.
3. Address the fears! Talk about what they are worried about and help them identify which concerns are realistic and which are not. A lot has changed since we were in school. The academic rigor has increased, technology has made things more complex, and electives/sports has evolved into a whole new level of commitment. So they may be facing some new challenges! Express your confidence in their ability to meet those challenges and succeed!
4. Practice! With every generation, these kids are exposed to adult issues at an earlier age. I always recommend to role play with your kids – what to do if you are put in a difficult situation regarding skipping school, drugs, sex, breaking curfew, etc… How will they respond? I tell my own children, I am happy to be the “bad guy” if they are put in a situation and aren’t sure how to respond. I will gladly be their scapegoat. I also have a no questions asked regarding picking up at 2 a.m. if it means I don’t have to pick my kids up from jail, hospital or worse yet, identify them at the morgue. Talking about how they will handling difficult situation often decreases their anxiety since they are now prepared for it.
5. Stress is a normal part of everyone’s life so talk about healthy coping skills they can use. Come up with a list of things they can do to help them de-stress at home and at school. Some ideas on healthy coping skills: using a finger labyrinth (Amazon.com), at night use a notebook to write 3 positives – at the end of the day let’s focus on what is working not what’s not, journaling, adult color books, music, theraputty (Amazon.com), meditation tools for smart phones – Nature Sounds, Calm, and Mediation for beginners.
6. Remember: Exercise is the most under-utilized anti-depressant. Leave the cell phones at home and go for a walk. Talk about the day. It’s important to check in with each other. I always recommend that parents invite their kids to talk about a positive and negative for the day. Learning what your child identifies as the negative allows the parent to gauge how difficult of a day it has been for them and to help support them emotionally through those challenges. This Also makes sure they check in with you… it is a great way to teach two way communication and learn more about each other.
7. Remind them mistakes are okay, even in High School. So many kids feel that their entire future bridges on a successful High School career but in reality it is only a small piece of life. There are many extremely successful people who struggled through High School and College. The reality is we need struggles in order to develop the skills necessary to adapt to the ups and downs that life will bring us. I have seen kids within the top 10% of their graduating class fail in college because they never learned the skills to be resilient, to utilize healthy coping skills, and were coddled too much by their parents. They didn’t learn the independent skills necessary to adapt to life such as advocating for themselves, learning problem solving skills to cope with difficult situations and learning to maintain a healthy schedule.
In the next couple weeks, approximately 4.1 million U.S. kids are going to walk into 9th grade for the first time and about 4 million of them are anxious about it. Let’s all practice these parenting skills and help them have a great year!
Rebekah dePeo-Christner is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor at CCD Counseling. This time of year, her clients include families of frightened freshman! She is also a Provider for the Family Tree Program, which provides free Family Counseling for Anxious Freshman and other ordinary family challenges.