More Than Academic: Navigating School Challenges in 2018

Photo | Mac Kennedy Kids and parents often greet the new school year with a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

Photo | Mac Kennedy
Kids and parents often greet the new school year with a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

Kids soon will be heading back to classrooms to start a new academic year, and they are facing stressors that their parents never had to face. Dr. Michelle New, whose Kentlands Kids practice on Main Street specializes in working with children, teenagers and young adults, reflected recently on these challenges and how parents can help.

Q: What are common stressors for teenagers?

A: Teens, tweens and sometimes younger age children worry about getting good grades, getting into college, having friends, having a friend group, having the right friend group, what others think of them, and their friends and friend choices.
For both boys and girls, there is a focus on being “Instagram ready.” In other words, having lots of followers, having photographs that look picture- perfect, and possibly having bodies and clothing that are picture-perfect.

They are keenly aware of and anxious about the competitiveness of getting into college, and many high school freshmen take AP classes, and can cite the admission rate of colleges they want to attend at the age of 14. Many also want to be on sports teams and participate in extracurricular activities, and they want to do those at a top-rung level (for example, play varsity sports for all four years and have the lead role in the school play).

Both perfectionism and procrastination can be major sources of stress for teens, along with all the distractions of their phones, social media, and binge-watching shows. Perfectionism can include employing trainers, taking private lessons and using tutors to maximize their performance. Procrastination can arise in part due to lack of sleep, overscheduled days, difficulties with organization and time management, and easy access to our greatest source of distraction—electronics. School starts early, practice runs late, then time for homework and sleep is often pushed back, especially if they need some “downtime” after all that homework. Getting 5 or 6 hours sleep and having erratic meal schedules is not unusual among teenagers.

Q: Are there new stressors specific to 2018?

A: I have noticed … that children seemed more reticent about going to school and their previous world view (that school is safe) was challenged by the school shootings, political unrest and marches. Even before that, students who already felt more vulnerable—because of their race, religion, gender and/or sexual identity­—seemed to be bringing up more incidences of bullying and harassment by other students and fears in general. Parents also seemed more concerned and more likely to respond to a student resisting school (especially due to fears of being unsafe at school) by allowing a student to stay home than in the previous year.

Q: What do you tell parents and kids about seeking help for anxiety through therapy, medication or both.

A: There remains stigma about seeking mental health care, and for some children, teens and young adults, they are fast becoming independent. So, for some, seeking out a therapist can feel like a backward step. However, I really do feel that anxiety is such an unpleasant internal state, and most are eager to find ways to reduce tension and constant worries, so people are usually more than willing to work with a therapist to add to their stress management tool kit.

Many want a quick fix and are unprepared for the longer time period needed to learn these new skills. … Many are also surprised by (and enjoy) the collaborative nature of cognitive-behavioral therapy. The therapist and client (and parent when the child is younger) work together on Team “Johnny,” rather than a classic doctor-patient role.
Dr. New earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the Institute of Child Health, University of London, England. Previously, New was an associate professor at The School of Medicine and Health Sciences George Washington University. She also has served as the director of the clinical program for chronically ill children at Children’s National Medical Center.