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Coping with Back-to-School Anxiety for High-Schoolers

Am I good enough to make the team this year? Am I smart enough to take AP Biology? Those seniors seem so much older than me! Each year of high school brings new concerns for your teen. Follow our suggestions on how to help ease those worries.

Where Do I Fit In?

Your teen is most worried about belonging -- finding a group of like-minded peers who will accept him and call him their friend. These safe havens come in many forms: sports teams, clubs, extracurricular activities, and friendship circles.

As you might recall from your own high-school days, every student body is fractured into distinct cliques -- jocks, geeks, nerds, goths, preps -- and while the labels may change with the times, the pressure to fit in seems eternal. Encourage your child to follow extracurricular activities based on his own interests, curiosities, and abilities, not on whether a certain pursuit will grant him automatic acceptance to a clique.

How Do I Look?

What kids wear and how they look is very important in high school, and even in middle school. Certain fashions and brand-name clothing become the uniforms for particular groups. Hairstyles (and colors), makeup, body piercings, and tattoos also give kids both an individual and group identity.

There's considerable pressure on girls to emphasize their sexuality in the way they present themselves and communicate. For boys, achieving average height and a sufficiently developed physique by the mid-teens is often equated with their masculinity.

Particularly for mothers and daughters, sarcastic or critical remarks about a girl's appearance is shaming, harmful, and puts an unnecessary strain on a relationship that may be stressed already. If it's tempting to comment on your daughter's outfit or hairstyle, try pulling back -- and pulling out some of your own high-school pictures instead. Besides giving you both a good laugh, you can use these photos to start a discussion on how you both coped with anxieties about your appearance. Pictures can be a vivid reminder that Mom also struggled with these same issues.

Am I Smart Enough?

A nervous freshman once told me, "Everything starts to count freshman year. From here on in, if you goof up at all, no colleges will want you." This abiding panic can continue until the end of junior year, when kids believe their futures will have been decided. For many, college acceptances dictate whether they have any future at all.

Academic competition heats up in high school; coursework gets measurably tougher, homework gets much longer, teachers don't spoon-feed kids. The challenge is "Are you smart enough to handle all this, on your own?"

Remind your teen that college acceptances are based on many factors. Kids who challenge themselves with difficult courses and do well are considered better candidates than students who receive higher grades but take the easiest classes. Freshmen grades are not considered as relevant as grades in later years.

Assure him that his study and test-taking skills will improve. Encourage him to come to you if he begins to become confused or overwhelmed about any of his schoolwork.

Keep up with the specifics of his coursework and homework. Don't wait for his first term's grades to find out how he's doing academically. Tell him that you will do whatever it takes to help him succeed, including finding him a tutor if necessary.

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