The J Word: 6 Ways Parents Can Manage Junior Year Anxiety

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Her eyes widen, mouth gapes open and eyebrows rise. With a look of pity and dread my friend utters dramatically, “Brace yourself!”

Based on her expression, you’d think I’d told her I was going to have my wisdom teeth removed without anesthesia, or that I intended to take up skydiving and forgo a parachute.

But I had simply stated, “My daughter has entered her junior year of high school.”  

Over the past few months, I’ve found that telling people my daughter is a junior evokes dismay and sorrow from anyone tuned into the cultural dread that accompanies this stage of parenting. It’s as knee jerk a reaction as the parenting warning, “You’ll never sleep again!” or You’ll never see another movie!” after the birth of your first child.

My friend’s response confirmed my long-standing worries about what lay ahead. My husband and I would soon be packing our family up for a Year-Long-Emotional-Outward Bound-Expedition that would lead us to unimaginable emotional limits and thrust us into inconceivable moral dilemmas: cheating on tests, amphetamine addiction, cost prohibitive college counselors, and social climbing.

This junior year hype must be true, right?

Wrong.

If your family gets through junior year without excessive tears, anxiety attacks and pressure, it does not mean that you’ve done something wrong.

Each time I see the SAT prep book on my daughter’s desk, my friend updates me on her son’s work with his private college counselor, or I hear “internship opportunity uttered, I refrain from jumping into the cultural pool of anxiety that surrounds “The Junior Year Challenge.” Instead, I remind myself of the many lessons I’ve learned through years of training, clinical practice, extensive research, and focus groups on achievement, anxiety and parenting: Dread, worry and harshness are not prerequisites for post-high school success.

If you’re feeling anxious about your child’s entry into his or her final high school years, here are 6 tips to combat parental achievement anxiety:

  1. Understand it: Knowledge is power and self-knowledge is even more powerful. Self-awareness and insight are some of the best antidotes for anxiety. Know what makes you anxious about the process: Are you worried about doing what you’re “supposed” to do as a parent? Does this stage of your child’s life remind you of your personal history? In order to maintain a healthy boundary between you and your teen, know what’s revving up your anxiety. Notice your worries, how you express them, and what keeps them in check. Your family will benefit from your self-awareness.
  2. Validate it: Change and preparing to separate from your child is anxiety producing. This is a meaningful launch. Acknowledging your anxiety, rather than beating yourself up about it, will help you be more open to understanding its origins, neutrally observing your behavior, and preventing it from driving your decisions.
  3. Limit “anxiety contagion”: Anxiety is the most easily transmitted of all the emotions. Try to spend less time with people, especially other parents, who emit anxiety. Avoid stepping onto their accelerating anxiety treadmill. Human brains mirror one another. Adolescent brains are especially sensitive to mirroring and absorbing the emotions around them. If you’re feeling anxious, put a little emotional distance between you and your teen to prevent them from “catching” your anxiety.
  4. Remember what you stand for: Return to your core values. If you want your child to be fulfilled and happy, don’t wait until after the applications are in, they’re accepted into college, or they’ve graduated. Live those values now. Provide frequent reminders to yourself and your teen about what’s most important. Your core values can serve as a North Star as you navigate these final years of high school.
  5. Be an anxiety management role model: This may be one of the best tools for becoming a successful adult that you can offer your kids. Understanding, regulating and communicating your feelings is one of the keys to a prosperous and happy life. Let your teens see you manage anxiety in healthy and productive ways.
  6. Become a creative problem-solver: Avoid binary thinking and assume a growth mindset. College is not the Parenting Grand Finale where you need to send them off with a bang. Though they may not live under your roof in the future, you will still have opportunities to impart your wisdom, offer guidance, and demonstrate support. You’ll have many curtain calls when you can go back on stage and resume your parenting role.

Instead of equating the J word with dread, let’s associate it with Joyful Journey: a time to examine ourselves, learn more about our children, celebrate their growth, and prepare to launch them into a joyful future.

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