For Parents: High School Students Facing Year-End Burnout
Tips for Managing School-Related Stress and Adolescent Mental Health
Posted May 28, 2017
For those of us working in secondary schools, it is par-for-the-course that a handful of students who have been hanging on -- albeit by a thread -- will collapse under the pressure of end-of-year academic demands. Already depleted from months of sustained effort, some high-achieving students may see the light at the end of the tunnel, but still find the prospect of preparing for a slew of final exams in their current state of exhaustion daunting at best. And those students who have not been keeping up as diligently for whatever reason(s), especially those with the added strain of learning differences, attentional issues, or social-emotional vulnerability, may feel they could sooner fly than crank out one more essay or problem set.
As a parent, it is extremely frightening to see your child struggling with heightened anxiety, depression, or even suicidal thoughts in response to overwhelming school stress. In the most serious cases, your child may even be hospitalized or need to request an administrative leave from school. (More on how to handle a mental health leave below.) In many cases, however, your support of your child, your partnership with the school, perhaps the timely assistance of an outside psychotherapist, can prevent -- or at least minimize the impact of -- a “crash and burn” situation.
How to support your child at home
Learn from your child -- and if possible your child’s academic advisor, guidance counselor, or trusted teacher -- what the primary and perhaps secondary stressors seem to be. Are there social stresses undermining your child’s ability to concentrate? Is there one particularly difficult class that is draining all of her energy? Has her mood shifted into a depressed or anxious state?
Withhold moral judgement.
Recognize/accept that if your child is melting down, there are undoubtedly valid reasons. You may feel that s/he has a much better situation than you had growing up, but that is simply not relevant to a child who feels paralyzed, depressed, panicked, or overwhelmed.
Stick with short-term solutions (for now).
You probably won’t be able to address every possible underlying matter immediately, so pick and choose what can be managed now, and put the rest of the issues on the back burner until a later time, i.e. the summer. If your child is struggling to complete her classes, your top priority is getting her through this phase. While you may want to initiate some larger scale changes to help support her ongoing progress, this is actually probably not the time to undertake a complete reboot of her sleep patterns, social media use and caffeine intake.
Break the whole down into smaller, more manageable parts.
Many students who crash at the end of the year have become overwhelmed by the “big picture.” Students trying to finish coursework and prepare for final exams often say they simply “don’t know where to start.” If your child is open to your support, you can serve as an "executive assistant," breaking down the overall load into component parts that your child can then address one at a time. It helps some students very much to create a detailed calendar with realistic expectations of what should be completed each day.
Try to maintain perspective.
Those of us who work in schools have the benefit of a longitudinal perspective to reassure us. Time and time again, we get to see students who were previously (last year, last semester, even last month) in dire straits holding their own, or even flourishing, on the other side of a developmental, emotional or academic crisis. Your child will improve and recover, even if the path is neither linear nor as rapid as you would wish.
How to partner with your child’s school
Communicate/ask for help. (It takes a village.)
Schools greatly respect and appreciate parents who reach out when their child is in trouble. You may be able to share information about your child that would be extremely helpful to his teachers or counselor. Schools are relieved to be able to partner with parents and generally welcome your collaboration.
Recognize that you may not have the whole picture.
At the same time, it’s important you to understand that may not be aware of everything that is happening with your child. If school personnel offer new information about your child’s behavior, mood, or learning style -- even if it surprises or upsets you -- try to listen. You can probably learn something that will help inform your own approach.
Acknowledge your vulnerability and limitations.
Even if you feel -- perhaps quite accurately -- that you know your child best and can come up with the best solutions -- try to be humble. Your child’s teachers, counselor, or school administrator will be much more sympathetic and supportive if they see that you are open to the school’s input and assistance.
How to seek professional help for your child
Solicit a referral to a local mental health professional who specializes in adolescents. Good referral sources* include: school guidance counselor, psychologist, or Dean of Students, your child’s pediatrician, other parents you know/respect/trust, local authors of books about adolescent development or mental health, local pediatric hospital or community mental health clinics, Psychology Today Website.
*I advise against getting names from your health insurance provider “panel.” For one thing, those lists are notoriously out-of-date and/or inaccurate.
These lists also do not provide any “quality control" in that anyone with a license who can fill out paperwork can join a panel is there is room. Further, calling people at random can eat up a lot of time and energy, and those providers on the lists that are capable and experienced are likely to have full practices. Child clinicians are also less likely to return a call if you are not referred by a specific colleague or institution. Many parents in the Boston area tell me most child mental health providers they contact from their health insurance lists never even call them back.
What to do if your child needs a temporary leave from school for mental health reasons
If your child is hospitalized for psychiatric reasons toward the end of the school year, understand that while this may be terrifying for you, your child’s school has dealt with this before and will deal with it again. If your child requires inpatient mental health treatment, let school demands go for the moment. Stay in touch with your child’s school and know that most schools will offer some flexibility re: academic requirements to a student on psychiatric leave. This may take the form of deadline extensions, modification of course requirements, etc. Public schools are required by law to make accommodations and most have various safeguards and programs to support students in this situation. Private schools are less regulated in this area, but they often have the resources and flexibility to individualize a plan for a student who misses school for psychiatric reasons.
Don’t keep secrets.
While a child’s psychiatric crisis is deeply painful and you may be inclined to keep it private from the school, this is rarely if ever an advisable course. Doing so can easily scare school personnel and breed mistrust with the very people you will need to support your child’s continued academic and personal progress. You can be selective re: in whom you confide, but make sure you have at least one confidante within the school who can serve as an ally and advocate for your child.
Secure high quality, ongoing outpatient mental health care for your child.
In the Boston area, the average length of stay for an adolescent psychiatric hospitalization is 5-10 days, and this estimate includes weekend days when professional staff (social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists) are not on the units. While an adolescent psychiatric hospital can provide a safe, supportive “holding environment” for a child and perhaps an essential intervention at a critical moment, real treatment will happen after discharge. Do not rely on the inpatient unit to provide an outpatient referral unless the staff actually knows a recommended provider and has collaborated with this person before. You will likely need to secure a referral on your own, for which you can refer to the guidelines above. And while your child’s school may have great resources in their guidance department or counseling center, it is essential for your child to have an outside provider in addition who can provide frequent visits, close monitoring, and guidance to you, including over the summer.