The shift between a long vacation and a new school year can be a difficult one, particularly for young men already dealing with pre-existing mental health conditions. A new school year means changes, new classes and new teachers, and it can also mean a return to old fears and stressors and the re-introduction of ongoing challenges. This period of transition can be bumpy, but it can also be an opportunity to address issues with renewed vigor and focus. With an eye towards a critical three-month window between September and November, the Causeway team would like to offer parents some much needed guidance on the return to school. If your son is struggling in the new year, or you’re looking for an opportunity to make a change, we invite you to read on.

Beginning a new school year is one of the more tumultuous periods in the life of an adolescent or young adult. There is stark difference between a stress-free summer and structured school days filled with high expectations, complicated peer relationships, and greater responsibility. You might have even noticed behavioral changes in the few weeks leading up to the first day of classes. For young men contending with emotional or psychological issues alongside the ordinary pitfalls of adolescence, the transition can be doubly difficult. Schedule changes may upset coping mechanisms, and the re-introduction of stressors may aggravate symptoms. Changing schools and entering a new atmosphere, or starting over after a prolonged absence, also amplifies the stress, as unfamiliarity with a new environment can breed fear or anxiety.

However, as you might be all too aware, young men in particular have a tendency to stay silent even as stress mounts, to withdraw and avoid issues that are bothering them. “School was fine.” “Everything’s fine.” This can continue until the problems get completely out of hand. A failing grade. A suspension. Emotional outbursts. Don’t get taken by surprise. The first weeks of school represent a prime opportunity to nip emerging or lingering problems in the bud, before habits are formed and the stakes get too high. To leverage a stressful transition into an impetus for growth, keep an eye for these signals. If you son displays:

  • Irritability
  • Confrontational behavior
  • Defensiveness about grades or attendance
  • Withdrawal
  • Exaggeration of minor issues
  • Minimizing of significant issues
  • Flat out refusal to go to school
  • Dramatic mood changes
  • Limited communication

…It might be time to take action. But how? Recognizing a problem is one thing, but acting on it is another. We know how difficult taking those steps to address issues related to a new school year, and we want you to know that you’re not alone. Many families dread the first few weeks of September. The Causeway team has put together some helpful tips to make the return to school a time of positive development.

For parents of young men with pre-existing mental health issues, the key is to engage, engage, engage. Break the cycle of avoidance by bringing up potential sources of stress early and often. Instead of waiting for the night before a report is due, when stress levels are already high, strike when the iron is cold. In other words, engage in conversation during a low-stress period, like a family dinner or a last lazy Saturday afternoon. Employ a neutral tone without an edge, and avoid judgmental language like, “Why didn’t you say something before?” At the same time, remember to convey both strength and focus. Be a rock of stability to help guide your son through a challenging time, and show your commitment to staying by his side. Finally, support activities and outlets that are school-based. A favorite class or a beloved sports team might be the difference between willing attendance and bitter avoidance. To review:

  • Engage, engage, engage
  • Neutral tone
  • Judgment-free
  • Strength and focus

If your son has contended with academic difficulties in the past, or you have noticed signs of latent struggles—defensiveness about grades, avoidance behaviors, irritability—read on for some helpful hints. Again, speak up early and often, rather than waiting until major academic milestones like midterms or papers, to set realistic and attainable goals. Say for example, your son neglected a summer reading assignment and tanked a quiz on the first day. Take that opportunity to encourage him to get back on top of the content, meet with a teacher, or consult with academic support. Next, lay down clear and feasible expectations for him to meet. No matter what he might say, no one likes to fail, and by acting early, you can help him understand what you expect from him, and what he should expect from himself. Don’t enable avoidance or procrastination; check in frequently regarding due dates and deadlines, using the neutral, judgment-free tone we discussed earlier. Use your own judgment and experience to dial up or down your direct involvement, and treat the first few months a sort of diagnostic period. If November rolls around and your son is thriving, consider taking more of a back seat; if he is still floundering, step up your active participation and seek out the resources available to you. In short:

  • Act early and often
  • Setbacks as opportunities
  • Run diagnostics
  • Set realistic goals

Hopefully, these tips and strategies will provide the information you need to make the new school a time of success and positive growth for your son. Remember: you’re not alone. Early fall is the busiest time of year at the Causeway office. And if you’re still looking for answers or unsure of where to turn next, check out our newsletter for information on upcoming parent seminars, where you can share your experiences and hear from others in topic-based sessions co-facilitated by our trained staff.

(Originally posted here)

Vince Benevento is the director and founder of Causeway Collaborative in Westport, CT. Causeway’s mission is to help students bridge the gap between potential and outcome, and help them foster fruitful transitions to adulthood. A licensed professional counselor, Vince holds a BA in Psychology from Wesleyan University and an MA in School Counseling from Fairfield University. He has 10+ years experience working specifically with teenage and young adult males, and he has worked with boys from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

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