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How Does School Affect Your Teenager’s Mental Health?

How Does School Affect Your Teenager’s Mental Health?

School for teenagers is often very similar to jobs for adults. While every workplace is different, so is every school system. The environment of each school system may differ. However, the general themes often remain the same. Schools include diverse populations of teens, each at different stages in their adolescent development phase, which can be similar to diverse coworkers in a workplace; students are met with a principal and teachers who run the school, often comparable to bosses and managers in a workplace, and teens days and weeks are filled with homework and assessments that correlate to projects and daunting work tasks for adults in the workplace.

Reflecting on how these three factors of social pressures, task goals, and authoritative figures in your place of work influence your mental health may be helpful when reflecting on the rollercoaster of emotions, behaviors, and moods that your teens may be experiencing in school that correlate to their mental health. Work for adults is often flooded with emotional highs and lows. Adults experience excitement and success after completing a big project or getting a promotion, these positive feelings of a “high” quickly move to feelings of stress and doom after missing a big deadline, struggling with a boss, or failing to understand your next job task. School for adolescents is no different. Teens’ emotional dysregulation is often associated with the changes in their brain and body, paired with the constant reminders to get good grades, pass their classes, and show up to school, and more relevantly, the peer pressure to fit in and have friends. The topic of ‘How School Can Affect Teenage Mental Health?’ is broad and general. Every teenager has their own experience with school, which is why some teenagers are met with school being the highlight of their teen days, while others view school as the barrier to adulthood. While some teen behaviors can be chalked up to a bad day, there are some teenage behaviors and patterns that may be signs of school impacting a teen’s mental health in a more significant way.

Here are four behaviors to pay attention to and observe when considering if school is affecting your teen’s mental health in a non-manageable or possible cause of concern way:

1. Avoidance of school and a drop in daily attendance
a. This behavior can signify that there is something that the student is avoiding. Some examples of avoidance of school can be bullying, anxiety over peer interaction or school work, shame over learning disabilities, and a lack of ability to perform to a standard.

2. Decrease in motivation to do school work or activities in school
a. This behavior can signify depressive symptoms such as fatigue or loss of interest in once-enjoyed activities. These behaviors can stem from feelings of school pressure, not fitting in with peers, or being overwhelmed by school work or social expectations.

3. Sleeping in class
a. This behavior is easily chalked up to “laziness”; however, sleeping in class can be a sign of struggle with mental health related to sadness and avoidance of work or participation, and often, this behavior is a cry for help.

4. Acting out in the classroom
a. Sure, every student may have a moment to shine as the class clown. However, a once-in-a-while class clown looks different from daily class defiance. Let’s make sure we do not normalize this behavior if it becomes a habit! Students who struggle with ADHD and various types of anxiety or who do not know how to ask for help in the classroom often project these behaviors into taking on the role of “class clown.” This behavior can be a significant red sign that the student needs structure and support to help them feel safe and contained in the classroom.

These diverse behaviors can stem from several factors, including a student’s home environment, their relationship with family and peers, their relationship with themselves, and their overall school experience. Struggles with teen mental health often show up in the school environment. In addition to these four behaviors to look out for, these three quick tips can help parents, educators, and peers support students struggling with school-related mental health issues.

1. Ask questions and build rapport.
a. Questions such as: “What did you learn in science class today?”, “Can I help you with your homework?”, “I struggled with school when I was your age as well. Is there anything specifically that you do not look forward to?” Learn how to support your teens’ struggles from a place of intrigue and desire to understand their experiences.

2. Lead with compassion
a. Teenagers often shut down quickly when they feel judged—we all do! Instead of getting mad over grades dropping, get curious. Before you snap because three Fs came back in a row from math class when they were consistently A’s in the past, learn why those grades dropped.

3. Be an advocate
a. Advocating for teen mental health and school struggles is imperative to long-term student success. Advocate for IEP meetings, Psychological Educational testing, different school systems if one is not working, and teach your teens to advocate for themselves as well.

When parents, teachers, and students work together to debunk some of these behaviors and understand how they relate to mental health struggles, the outcome leads to positive changes and, in return, a decrease in school-related mental health symptoms. School is a challenging time for teens; leading with compassion and being an advocate can go a long way!

Nikki Wendel
Education Director, M.Ed, LPCC-Trainee