Its back-to-school time. But like, now it’s really, actually back to school time for a lot of adolescents. Back for many kids for the first time in eighteen months to full-time, non-hybrid, non-remote, sitting at next to other kids, some places without masks, in classes in cafeterias, in auditoriums and playing fields. And for more kids than ever, that means back to anxiety, but more of it, but we haven’t had the practice of being together in the same way.
I’m so excited to be offering the second edition of Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety, which walks teens through anywhere they might encounter anxiety. At home and with family, at school, with classmates and teachers, and of course in social lives and performance situations as well.
One of the things anxious teens and adults do a lot is listen to—and believe—that critical anxious voice. You know the one, the one that says, “There’s no way I can raise my hand to speak in actual class when we go back.” “Everyone’s gonna think I’m weird because I’m two feet taller than I was last March when school shut down.” “The soccer team is gonna get smeared because we didn’t practice this year nearly as much as the rival town.”
Guess what? Have you ever seen that bumper sticker that says, “Don’t believe everything you think?” It’s actually true, and some good advice too. That critical voice has probably not had any good reality checks from friends since March 2020, and so has only gotten louder, and sounds even more real than ever. But that still doesn’t mean it’s right. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong either, but it very well might be, and this helps us remember that our anxious brains aren’t always right, and that can bring real relief.
I want to encourage you to try this mindful mindset practice, some people call this a kind of a “mindfulness without meditation” practice that might help the kids you work with (or yourself and your colleagues!) as you go back to school in person.
First, write down a few of those worried thoughts from some adolescents I’ve talked to. And uh, maybe some grown-ups as well.
I’ll get back to school and my friends won’t want to be my friends anymore.
People are not going to like the new haircut I got this year!
I’m going to get made fun of since my voice changed and I hit puberty in the last eighteen months and am, like, a foot taller!
I’m going to get a new variant of COVID.
I have forgotten how to socialize and make small talk!
I’ve been wearing sweatpants to Zoom school,l and I don’t know what sneakers or jeans are cool anymore!
My teachers are going to be a lot harder again now that we are back in person!
Write down your own personal top-five playlist of back-to-school related worries; just back-to-school worries.
So, what if you could remind yourself that all these stories you’re telling yourself are just thoughts, not necessarily reality? This is far easier said than done, of course, but you could start by putting the words I’m having the thought that… in front of every anxious thought you wrote above. For example:
- I’m having the thought that I’ll get back to school and my friends won’t want to be my friends anymore.
- I’m having the thought that people are not going to like the new haircut I got this year!
- I’m having the thought that I’m going to get made fun of since my voice changed and I hit puberty in the last eighteen months and am, like, an entire foot taller!
- I’m having the thought that I’m going to get a new variant of COVID.
- I’m having the thought that I have forgotten how to socialize and make small talk!
- I’m having the thought that I’ve been wearing sweatpants to Zoom school, and I don’t know what sneakers or jeans are cool anymore!
- I’m having the thought that my teachers are going to be a lot harder again now that we are back in person!
Take some time to read this list over again with the new addition. Maybe read a bit more mindfully this time, allowing the words to sink in. While this exercise may not completely annihilate every the anxious thought at school approaches, it can start to take some of the sting out, and just like the best students back in school, we are aiming her for progress not perfection!
Christopher Willard, PsyD, is a psychologist and educational consultant based in Boston, MA; specializing in mindfulness. He has been practicing meditation for twenty years, and leads mindfulness and mental health workshops internationally. He currently serves on the board of directors at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and is president of the Mindfulness in Education Network. He has presented at TEDx conferences, and his thoughts have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, www.mindful.org, and elsewhere. He is author of Child’s Mind, Growing Up Mindful, Raising Resilience, and three other books. He teaches at Harvard Medical School.