Michael C. of Scarsdale, New York, sailed through elementary school. But once he entered middle school, the waters turned choppy. Overwhelmed by the heightened academic requirements, “it was like he was in a panic mode and was just not doing any of the work,” says his mother, Helena. “There was zero effort—things just totally cratered.”
As Michael grew increasingly anxious, his friendships suffered, too. “He had a whole group of pals when he came out of elementary school,” Helena says. “In seventh grade, he didn’t even have one friend.”
Managing Anxiety in Middle School: When Middle School Anxiety Strikes
Michael’s experience is more common than you may think, says Keith Terlonge, middle school counselor at Beachwood Schools in Beachwood, Ohio. “Between puberty, gaining access to social media, and the increased rigor of middle school, the anxiety kind of peaks at this time,” he notes.
School anxiety can manifest itself in various ways. “If you have a child who is usually more overt socially, you might see that they’re more withdrawn and lacking an interest in social activities,” says Stefanie Currington, school psychologist at Beachwood Middle School. “If you have a child who’s pretty strong academically, you might see a change in grades.”
But not all school anxiety symptoms are behavioral. Sometimes the problem can express itself physically, adds Christopher Kearney, director of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Child School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic. “If a child is having complaints such as frequent headaches and stomachaches, that could be a sign of anxiety as well,” he says.
Alleviating the Anxiety
The first step toward finding school anxiety solutions is to talk to your child about how they are feeling and what’s stressing them out. “The better the line of communication a parent has with their child, the more likely they are to find information out,” Currington explains. If your child won’t admit they’re anxious, but something seems off, contact your school’s counselor or social worker.
Also reach out to your child’s teachers to learn where you can find out about assignments and tests, Currington recommends. “Most of it’s online now, using an online gradebook or Google classroom,” she says. That way, you can help your child learn how to track and prepare for upcoming obligations. (As your child learns these skills, let them take the lead.) Keep in periodic touch with the teacher throughout the year as well—email is often easiest—to make sure your child is meeting expectations.
It’s also smart to teach your middle-schooler some strategies for coping with test-taking anxiety, Terlonge says. “We always talk about getting adequate sleep, at least eight to 10 hours, and not coming to school on an empty stomach,” he explains. He’s a fan of the “Calm” meditation app, which plays soothing noises that can help with relaxation and focus—great for day-before-test (or before-school) jitters.
It’s important to help your child keep things in perspective, a skill they may not yet have. “Test-taking anxiety often comes from overvaluing the importance of the test,” says Kearney. Explain that a test is only part of the entire grade and that there are often ways to make up a poor score. And, since middle school grades don’t yet count towards their college transcript, mistakes are far less consequential.
Chances are this phase will pass and they will soon enter a calmer—and more confident—one. But if your child starts missing school, stops handing in homework, or loses interest in friendships or extracurricular activities, don’t hesitate to seek the help of a mental health professional, Kearney says.
This was the case for Michael. With guidance from his parents, school counselors, and a therapist, he learned to manage his anxiety and is back on track, both academically and socially.