A PLC Guide

Stress, Anxiety, and School

What parents can do to support a struggling teen
Teenager walking in a field of fall wildflowers, walking away from the camera

Many teens who love learning find school stressful and anxiety-provoking. Not all teen anxiety is related to school, but Pew research surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of students are often or always stressed at least in part by schoolwork, overloaded schedules, and academic pressures. This results in emotional problems, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation for many. The fast pace, numerous demands on kids’ time, and social pressures cause many to feel continually overwhelmed and unhappy. Some try tirelessly to meet those demands and others avoid or disregard them. Some refuse school altogether. 

Teenagers who are anxious about school feel a lack of control and a lack of meaning. Their lives feel overscheduled with directed activities that fill up most of their days. During a period in their lives when kids most desire independence, many teens feel they have little choice about how they spend their time. This can be discouraging and disempowering. Many teenagers that we have worked with at Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) expressed feeling overwhelmed and simultaneously bored in school. They were trying to keep their heads above water with schoolwork that interested them little if at all. Furthermore, when teens express their frustrations, they are often told that this is preparation for the real world, which can make them feel depressed, discouraged, or even cynical about their futures. 

If your child is struggling with school-related stress and anxiety, how do you help them and not make things worse? Here are a few recommendations to consider depending on your individual circumstances.

Change your Approach

Neuropsychologist, Bill Stixrud, and educational advisor, Ned Johnson, co-authored The Self-Driven Child and What Do You Say?, which together outline a fresh approach to parenting kids through school. The intent of this approach is to help children, particularly adolescents, have more control in their lives, a powerful antidote to stress and anxiety.

Bill and Ned lay out several practical changes that parents can make, a few of which may feel counterintuitive to some.

They reason that homework is not worth fighting over, and implore parents to instead take on a consultant role in which they make themselves available if needed, but otherwise withdraw themselves from any significant involvement in their teenage child’s schoolwork. This simple change can be very powerful in changing family dynamics, which sometimes underpin teen stress.

Parents should also make ample allowances for their child to have downtime. Bill and Ned argue that downtime not only provides rest for stressed out kids, but it promotes creativity and a sense of order in their lives.

Fostering internal motivation in kids rather than enforcing external motivators can help teens feel less anxiety about school and foster a fresh enjoyment of learning. Parents can de-emphasize the importance of grades while supporting their kids to learn things that are highly interesting to them and unrelated to schoolwork. This takes the pressure off, allowing the desire for learning to return.

When parents take a step back and stop trying to motivate their teen externally, the teenager is able to take control of their own time. When parents encourage their kids to make their own decisions, even if they choose unwisely, the personal agency teens develop is very empowering. Empowerment takes the wind out of the sails of anxiety.

Finally, parents can model a sense of control in their own lives. By making sensible choices, pursuing healthy interests, and modeling emotional stability when feeling stressed, parents help their kids become more equipped to handle the daily struggles that come their way.

If you don’t have time to read Bill and Ned’s book, you can watch them lecture on the topic here and here, or listen to Ned in an interview here. If one book isn’t enough, you may also like their new follow-up to The Self-Driven Child, What Do You Say? You can hear them speak about it here.

Bill and Ned’s approach is helpful especially for kids who are feeling academic pressures from their parents and/or from themselves as an extension of external school and societal pressures. For some kids, letting air out of the pressure of school can be enough for them to be happy and healthy again.

If you don’t have time to read Bill and Ned’s book, The Self-Driven Child, you can watch them lecture on the topic here and here, or listen to Ned in an interview here. You can hear them in conversation about their new book, What Do You Say? here.

Teenager drawing faces with markers

Change their Circumstances

For some kids, a change in attitude and approach is not enough. They need a change of circumstances. Homeschooling and self-directed learning centers like Princeton Learning Cooperative, in which teens and their families have full control over their learning, can be life-changing. Deciding what is learned, how and when, opens the world up for young people. It gives them a new sense of hopefulness and personal agency, providing fulfillment that often cannot be found in school. At PLC we have seen kids transition from barely attending compulsory classes in school to attending—and in some cases, leading—classes by choice. Kids sometimes are hastily identified as having attention or emotional stability issues when they may very well be having natural responses to conforming and high pressure circumstances. In such cases, changing their situation makes all the difference.

When teens leave conventional schooling, they exchange overscheduled, directed lives for control of their time. They exchange a general lack of choice for regular meaningful choices; high stress that paralyzes for less stress and good stress that motivates; compelled power-based relationships with adults for authentic cooperative relationships with mentors, tutors and parents; and a large community of same-age peers prone to cliques for a small cohesive mixed-age group of friends. These are the differences that many stressed out kids crave.

Whether a teenager homeschools independently or with a cooperative of other homeschoolers, it does not mean that parents have to quit their jobs to teach their child or that the teenager has to forego certain future opportunities, such as college.

To learn more about the ways homeschoolers really spend their time and how to go to college without conventional high school, read our guide here.

Seek Regular Support

Some teens are truly suffering from mental and emotional health disturbances that a change in approach or circumstances will not remedy. We encourage you to reach out for professional help either for your child or for yourself if he/she is unwilling to receive therapy. Parents can be helped tremendously by working with a family therapist for support in parenting a troubled teen. If your child is willing, we have heard from several families and teens that their experiences with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Dialectical Behavior Therapy were very helpful in managing stress and anxiety.

This guide can help with recognizing anxiety symptoms in teens.

You can find local NJ services and read about how CBT and DBT can help school-related anxiety in particular here and here.

WE're here to help

Navigating these options on your own can be difficult. Princeton Learning Cooperative supports teens and their families in creating educational and life changes that can make the difference between anxiety and contentment for young people.

If your teenager is struggling with anxiety and could benefit from learning outside the conventional high school, please be in touch. We are happy to find a time to speak with you individually to explain more about each option and answer any questions you have. We can also connect you with families who have had similar situations to your own.

PLC staff, Joel, Pan, Alison, and Katy, in conversation

Joel, Pan, Alison, and Katy
PLC staff members

Learn More

More about ways to change the narrative around learning and young people's paths forward:

See the profiles of current and former PLC members on our Stories page. The stories for Cammy and Sara describe how they struggled with school-based anxiety and stress and how their mental health improved when they joined PLC.


Profile picture of Cammy

Cammy

Profile picture of Sara

Sara