Return to Learn: Teens are going back to school

Return to Learn: Teens are going back to school

“Return to Learn” is a concept used in helping students get back into the classroom following a concussion: it’s a step-by-step progression that plays an important role in appropriate recovery. For many of our country’s children, this Fall’s return to the in-person classroom is much like coming back from a trauma. They will return to the classroom after an extended, nationwide pandemic, one that is not quite over. For many of our nation’s teens, the extended time out of their normal schedules and away from friends has taken a toll on their mental health. In addition, many of our nation’s children and teens have experienced the trauma of loss in various ways. Some have lost traditions and rites of passage that they have been looking forward to for many years. Some have lost family members, coaches, and teachers to the COVID-19 disease. They have also lost peace of mind, freedom, and a myriad of resources and supports that are provided through our school systems. With this newest surge in COVID-19 cases, our teens are facing the possibility and threat that more social gatherings and events will be cancelled to prevent the spread of the disease. They are also facing an increased risk of infection, as well as friends and loved ones becoming very ill or even dying of this disease.

In more normal times, our teens already face all kinds of challenges in transitioning back to school. For many preteens and teens, they are changing schools or transitioning to a new school. These transitions bring general challenges of adapting to new schedules and responsibilities, new settings and expectations, new friends and teachers. These transitions happen around periods of rapid emotional and social development for teens. Running concurrently are the tasks of growing intellectually and growing physically/emotionally/socially. No wonder teens sleep a lot! During adolescence, there are ten basic tasks that our teens are naturally working on as they grow and develop into fully functioning adults. When some basic needs are not being met, or when the world feels insecure or unstable, these developmental tasks become more difficult and can even be slowed. But there are ways that parents and loved ones can help teens continue this journey as well as mitigate negative effects of loss during this global pandemic.

Teen Parenting Basics

The most important thing that your children need is your presence in their lives. At times it seems that your teen is pushing you away as they increasingly spend more time with and listen more to their friends for direction. They are gaining autonomy and often appear that they don’t need you, and this can really hurt parents! Know that is a normal task (#10) of adolescent development; they will need your help in negotiating a balance between time with friends and time with parents. It’s not just time with parents that counts. To really be present with your kids, they need to feel what author Daniel J. Siegel calls the Four S’s: Safe, Seen, Soothed, Secure. In the book “The Power of Showing Up”, coauthored with Tina Payne Bryson, the pair explains that showing up involves being available in awareness, being receptive to and looking for moments to connect, and being with them in distressing or uncomfortable moments. It is not about perfection, but it is about predictable sensitive and attuned care, says Bryson.

Many therapists to teens will tell you that their teen clients really desire healthy, connected relationships with their parents. Teens share that the greatest barriers to this type of relationship is feeling dismissed when they share their experiences or feelings. This can happen when parents downplay a teen’s experience or don’t validate the emotions. This can also happen when parents react strongly or harshly to their teen making a mistake or poor judgment. Parents should come to expect that their teens will make plenty of mistakes on their way to adulthood. A teenage brain is wired for impulsivity, adventure, and instant gratification. A developing brain will make many mistakes on the way to maturing in these areas. Parents can regulate their own emotions, staying calm in these moments, and helping their teens to develop new skills for decision making and problem solving (task #4).

Communicating with your teen can be difficult, even infuriating at times. Not unlike toddlers, teenagers are in a phase of rapid brain development where they are often self-centered, moody, and mouthy. It is important to recognize this phase and distinguish when to correct and when to take a deep breath and listen deeper. The Child Mind Institute makes several suggestions for communicating with your teen, the first and most important is listening. Try to stay open and interested, asking open-ended but not direct questions. Recognize that they will likely not share every detail with you. In addition, validate their feelings instead of solving, correcting, or using every disappointment as a lesson. You may not feel the same way as your teen, but that’s because you have years on them with a myriad of emotional experiences. Everything for them is new and it helps to know that someone sees them and is there to comfort them when life is hard. Communication always works better when you first observe and then listen well. Set aside time to do things together that you both enjoy, share regular meals together and do these things without phones! Kids thrive on rituals and traditions. Resurrect some old family or cultural traditions and include your teens in the planning. Create new traditions together around birthdays, holidays, and opportunities just for fun.

One thing that your teens are not likely to approve of is regulating their screen time. Screen time is anything that is done for entertainment purposes on a screen: watching tv/movies, watching YouTube videos, playing video or cellphone games, scrolling through TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media platforms. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to no more than two hours per day. In addition to the time on screens, it is important to monitor and manage the appropriateness of what your child is watching. Too much or poor-quality screen time has been linked to irregular and shorter duration of sleep, behavior problems, underdeveloped social skills, violence, and obesity. Healthy screen time behavior starts with modeling. Evaluate your own screen time usage and begin by regulating yourself. Make sure that times with your teen don’t involve your distractions from your phone. Consider for your teen limits and curfews on phone usage, as well as when is the right time to allow social media use. Most social media apps have age restrictions for a reason, and it is best to follow these. Your teen’s brain is not ready to self-regulate in this area. Social media and gaming apps are developed with features made to keep you in the app or game as long as possible. This means that that much of what we do on our phones is highly addictive. If you find it difficult to put down your phone, imagine how much harder it is for your teen. See this article from the Kansas Medical Center for more ideas on regulating screen time.

Signs of Trouble

As your teen returns to school this fall, you may notice difficulty in transitioning back to a classroom setting. You may also notice difficulty in normal developmental transitions mentioned above. Parents always want to know what to look out for and how they can help when their teen is struggling. Observation was mentioned as a very important tool for staying connected to your teen. Observe not only their grades, but their demeanor, their sleep habits, and their interactions with other family members. Signs of difficulty include a sudden or gradual drop in grades or not turning in work, loss of interest in things they usually enjoy, weight changes, isolating from family and/or friends, significant increase in screen time, increase in sleep disturbance, excessive tiredness or fatigue, mood swings that are out of the norm for your teen, difficulty concentrating, and increase in anxiety or fear.

What should you do when you begin to see changes and signs of distress? Stay calm, don’t be alarmed, and talk openly with your teen about what you are seeing that is concerning and ask for their own self observations. Remember to gather lots of information and listen well before going into problem-solving mode. It is perfectly fine to ask them how they are feeling: assess if they are feeling more sad than usual or more anxious or worried than usual. Talk with them about their friends, school, schoolwork, and extracurriculars. It is probably best to talk many times over several days instead of one “big discussion”. If your teen indicates that they have been feeling more down than usual, it is okay to ask them if they have ever had thoughts of not being alive or ending their life. Asking direct questions about self-harm and suicidal ideation does not push a person to follow through. Help your teen engage with various support systems including sports teams and coaches, extracurricular leaders, extended family, friends, mentors, and church or other religious leaders. Learn and model methods of self-care and coping. Consider a social media break: take your teen for a day or weekend trip and get out in nature.

If your teen indicates that they have lost hope or have thought about harming themselves or ending their lives, seek professional help right away. If the thoughts are more passive or transient, you can find a licensed therapist in your area who works with teens. If the thoughts are active, you may want to consider stabilization in a children’s hospital. Empower your teen to understand and evaluate their own mental health. You can direct them to this article from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).  Remember to remain open and non-reactive to what they share. They need you not to react, but to respond with love, compassion, care, and respect.

Rebecca Maxwell is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Jacksonville, Florida. She can be reached at