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Family in Focus

Learning to cope

A local psychologist weighs in on academic anxiety

Kane County Magazine

School can be a place of positivity and learning, but as the start of the school year approaches, the anxieties and pressures students face in and out of the classroom can make academic success challenging. 

Dr. Heather Harej, a clinical psychologist with David Goodman, Ph.D. Psychologist Associates in St. Charles, offered some advice for students and parents to prepare for back-to-school struggles.

Every age group, Harej says, comes with its own difficulties. 

In middle school, it’s social anxiety: peer teasing and the stress of finding one’s place on the social ladder can take a toll on students. 

In high school, the future looms large and frightening. 

“In the St. Charles/Geneva area, where I see most of my kids … if they don’t have an interest in going to college, it’s very, very stressful,” Harej says.

Harej says that students often feel pressure to take AP classes and to know exactly what they want to do after they graduate. And, if students are applying to colleges, they can become overwhelmed by extracurricular activities and volunteering, which students are told they need in order to “look good” on college applications.

One action students can take to cope, Harej says, is to find an adult they trust.

“For some reason, these kids see adults as the enemy and [they don’t understand] them, and they try to handle all of this alone or in their peer group, which oftentimes is part of the problem,” she says. 

That’s why a trusted adult – who does not have to be a parent – can be a good resource for children when they need someone to talk to.

The most essential thing students can do to lower their stress levels, Harej says, is to limit their social media use. And parents can help.

“It’s extremely important that parents do not let their children take their phones to bed,” she says. 

Students who sleep near their phones are not as well rested because texts and social media notifications wake them up throughout the night. Harej adds that parents should not let their children use cellphones as alarm clocks – instead, opt for the real thing.

Another way parents can support their kids is to clearly define their roles as parents and set “clear boundaries” for what their children are and are not allowed to do. 

Harej suggested that any time a child gets a major privilege like a cellphone or a driver’s license, it should come with a contract outlining the behaviors the child has to practice in order to keep the privilege, and it should clearly state what will happen if the child does not meet these expectations.

It can be confusing for kids if the parent’s role is unclear, Harej says.

“I think [parents] try to initially be their child’s friend, hoping their child will tell them everything, and then get panicked by some of the things they find out from their children, and then [they] lay down the hammer,” Harej says. “And there’s all sorts of bad consequences, and the kids are upset because it’s a change from how the parents were.”

With these tips in mind, students and parents can work together to face the stresses of academics and adolescence head-on.

Learn more from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America at 

David Goodman, Ph.D. Psychologist Associates
405 Illinois Avenue, Suite 2C
St. Charles

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