It's not easy being teen: Expert says parents should be on lookout for back-to-school anxiety

Parents should watch for signs that their teen might be overwhelmed by the stress and anxiety sometimes associated with a return to school.

U of S expert urges parents to help their children cope with high school stress and anxiety

Going back to school can be stressful for teens. (Getty Images)

An expert at the University of Saskatchewan is asking parents to do their homework and watch for signs of stress as their teenagers head back to class for another year. 

"There are some things to watch for," said Michelle Gagnon, a registered doctoral psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the U of S.

"The pressures of doing homework and doing well in school and navigating some of those social situations can be more difficult for some teens than it for others."

I know that teens don't always want to talk.- Michelle Gagnon  

Gagnon said that parents should watch for some of the tell-tale indicators that their teen might be overwhelmed by the stress and anxiety. Warning signs could include changes in sleep patterns, eating habits or social relationships.

"It's really easy to let things go too far, we only have so many resources to juggle all the stressors."

Michelle Gagnon says parents should watch for warning signs that their teen is not able to cope with the stress of high school. (Don Hall/University of Regina. )

Ask questions

Parents can help by reaching out, even when their kids aren't receptive, Gagnon said.

"I know that teens don't always want to talk."

She said it is worth the effort for parents to try to get some understanding of what sort of stressors their teen is facing. Gagnon's advice for parents is to ask a lot of questions.

"What's the first day going to look like? How are you going to get there? Where are you going to go?"

That way, she said, parents and teens can begin working together to find coping mechanisms that work and to eliminate some of the unknowns that are causing a feeling of unease.

Know the unknown 

At the same time, Gagnon warned, there could be stressors lurking in the background that parents might not be able to perceive and my not themselves be able to understand "because it's not so much in the open where people can intervene."

One of the big ones is social media. The most obvious problem is cyber bullying.  

But social media use can also chip away at a teen's self-esteem, as they view the carefully curated online version of their peers, Gagnon said. A teen might see a carefully curated photo and feel they are not living up to an unrealistic standard.

The bottom line for Gagnon is parents should be aware they may not be able to understand and fix all of their teen's problems. Instead, they can concentrate on ways to help young people cope. 

"For instance … making sure that the teen is getting enough sleep and making sure that they are eating as well as they can."

Gagnon said that a teen's sense of stress should fade after a few weeks and that they should settle into a routine after a month or so of high school. If that doesn't happen, she suggested, there may be mental health issues at play. A visit with the family doctor may be a good first step in trying to address for complex issues, Gagnon said.

with files from Saskatoon Morning