How to Cope With High School Stress and Academic Anxiety

A difficult combination of teen academic anxiety and high school stress is plaguing American teenagers today. Academic anxiety and exam stress is steadily increasing, leading to unexpected mental health challenges. Hence, coping with school stress is a pressing health concern today in the United States. Parents need to develop tools to help kids build resilience, including an understanding of “failure” as more than negative.

Failure should be framed as a way for a teenager to develop strength. After all, high school stress leaves young people susceptible to adverse mental health outcomes with potential physical consequences. Also, academic anxiety may potentially open the door to a substance use disorder. Substance abuse is a direct result of teens looking to self-medicate. They want to escape the pain of exam stress, improve performance as mid-terms approach — or do both at the same time. By encouraging their teens to view failures as a natural part of growth, parents can get ahead of the crippling anxiety that drives young adults to destructive behaviors.

The Common Causes of High School Stress and Academic Anxiety

High school stress and academic anxiety are nothing new, and they have been happening ever since kids first began attending school. However, in a digital age where everything is shared on social media, the pressure to succeed is increasing at an alarming rate. As a result, the challenges of yesterday are magnified on social media today, growing into unrealistic expectations and crushing realities.

Under the microscope, teenagers feel their failures are magnified. At the same time, positives and real successes are often shunted aside.

According to a study in the Journal of Child Development, 68% of students see a decline in their grades during the first 12 weeks of high school. To understand what teens are experiencing, let’s review the common causes of high school stress and academic anxiety. They include the following:

The Tougher Academics of High School

Teenagers face more academic challenges today than ever before. Many kids that thrived in middle school now find high school to be more difficult than expected. Suddenly, they have to carry a homework burden that often feels overwhelming.

A Universal Fear of Failure

For a high school student under the microscope, the fear of failure is intense. Lacking experience, they see each setback as devastation. Their perception of themselves and their achievements is warped. Thus, they need a good dose of clarity and positivity.

More Family Responsibilities

Many kids today come from one-parent homes or homes where both parents are working late. Thus, they take on the responsibility of tending the home and watching out for younger siblings. Such duties drain time away from schoolwork.

College Competition

The competition to get into college is increasing in the 21st century. First, more kids are applying to college than ever before. Second, the soaring cost of college makes the battle for scholarships more intense than ever. Kids know these facts, and it scares them. Added parental pressure keeps this fear strong.

Social Pressures in a Digital Age

Social situations always are a source of stress for teens, but such pressure is increasing in the digital age. In terms of coping with school stress, everything amplifies with social media. Hence, apparent failures and comparative successes are more threatening.

Parental Expectations in a Digital Age

The digital age affects more than just high school students. Parents are affected as well. It’s not easy to see friends brag about their child’s success on social media. Such public posturing increases parental expectations, resulting in the archetype of a stressed teen. Remember that social media is curated; only positives get social media “air-time.”

Given these causes, parents need to encourage teenagers and express faith in them regularly. At all times, positive reinforcement is essential for kids. By building up your teenager, you provide an antidote to high school stress.

Finally, a valuable source of information for parents about academic anxiety and exam stress is teachers. After all, teachers work on the ground floor of a teenager’s life.

Learning More From Parent-Teacher Conference Questions

If a teenager is struggling in high school, a parent-teacher conference is often the best way to resolve the problem. To learn more about what is going on, useful parent-teacher conference questions are needed. Once asked, teachers are more likely to become aware of and tune into the challenge while providing valuable help.

Here is a sampling of effective parent-teacher conference questions designed to illuminate the challenges of a stressed teen

  • Where is my teenager falling short in high school?
  • What is my teenager’s overall attitude like in class?
  • How is my teenager getting along with other kids in the classroom?
  • Which subjects are the most challenging for my teen?
  • Is my teen having problems just on tests or with school work in general?
  • Does my child respond better to certain types of teaching (like oral instruction) and less so to others (such as reading)?
  • What might be causing my teen to feel frustrated or unhappy in high school?
  • Is my teen’s social interaction getting in the way of academic success?

These questions provide a beginning for a productive parent-teacher conference. Teachers often have tremendous insight into the effects of stress on high school students. Thus, they understand from past and present experience the challenges their students face.

By looking for solutions and fostering positive partnerships with the high school teachers of a teenager, a proactive step can help resolve a difficult problem or nagging issue.

A young man sits at a study table, running his fingers through his hair while he looks at his laptop in stress.Proactive Solutions Needed for Increased Academic Anxiety

An in-depth investigation by the Chicago Tribune illuminates how high school stress is unequivocally generated by college pressures. In the article, Elizabeth Arbir, a guidance counselor at Crystal Lake Central High School in Chicago, explains in a recent interview:

“Without a doubt, academic anxiety is definitely increasing. These kids are setting themselves up for dealing with a lot of pressure. And though some of them will be able to handle it… others are going to be, probably, those same kids who are going to come into my office and have a meltdown.”

As a counselor for over two decades, Arbir believes that parental expectations combine with academic anxiety to foster an untenable situation. The overall attitude of students faced with these expectations is to “push, push, push” to the breaking point. Ultimately, such intensity of mindset is nothing less than a recipe for disaster.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an astonishing 38% of female teens have an anxiety disorder, and 26.1% of male teens have an anxiety disorder. When dealing with the question of high school stress, the statistics are even more overwhelming.

Here are the stats on teen anxiety according to The American Psychological Association:

  • 10% of high school students say stress causes them to get lower grades
  • 59% of teenagers say balancing a bevy of activities increases stress
  • 40% of teenagers say they neglect home responsibilities due to stress
  • 37% said stress causes them to feel overwhelmed and makes them feel tired

The perspectives of experienced school counselors, when combined with these statistics, create a clear picture. High school stress and academic anxiety in teenagers need to be addressed and reduced as soon as possible.

Indeed, such a problem is shunted aside at our society’s greater peril. The high school students of today are the adults running the world tomorrow. If they are not able to grow up and develop in a healthy manner, the toxicity of the future will increase.

How to Help a Teenager Decrease High School Stress and Academic Anxiety

Despite the daunting statistics and the worries of high school counselors, there are practical approaches to help a teenager decrease high school stress and academic anxiety. These approaches can be applied relatively easily by parents.

Here are ten approaches that can help:

  1. Let a teenager know that parental love and acceptance is unconditional
  2. Encourage a teen to reframe negative self-talk, accentuating the positive
  3. Keep an eye on a teenager’s social group, editing out self-destructive kids
  4. Make sure a teen is eating healthy food, avoiding junk food and sugary snacks
  5. Reduce or eliminate caffeinated soft drinks with high fructose corn syrup
  6. Balance computer time and video games with outdoor activities like walking the dog in the neighborhood, taking a hike in a local park, and riding bikes
  7. Lead by example and make family meals smartphone-free and television-free times that focus on and prioritize honest and respectful conversation
  8. When a teenager feels overwhelmed, pause and focus on deep breathing.
  9. Highlight the importance of hobbies and enjoying life by taking a break and its subsequent positive effects on productivity and efficiency.
  10. Offer a teen the option of professional help, like a therapist, if needed.

Finally, parents need to contextualize success and failure, recognizing the fact that teenagers tend to blow things out of proportion. In truth, the vast majority of adults in the world have experienced ups and downs. It’s the very nature of life.

By normalizing the ups and downs of life to a teenager, they no longer feel like a terminally unique failure. Instead, a teen can recognize that their process reflects the lives of practically everyone else. By not feeling like the only “failure” in the world, the burden is lifted. As a result, a teenager finds at least partial relief from the adverse effects of high school stress.