As students transition back to school — and sometimes to prestigious schools with high expectations — it can be easy for stress to begin to take its toll. Sarah Tursi, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice focused in part on concierge counseling for teens and their families, encourages both parents and students to set themselves up for success with some tried-and-true strategies.
“I would encourage parents to look at their children’s start of school the way that we would look at starting a new job,” Tursi said. “Even if it is the most successful job that we’ve ever landed, we’re starting something new and there are a lot of unexpecteds that could come our way, and that causes a lot of stress for the student.”
Tursi, who has been in private practice for 12 years and has an office in McLean, Virginia, encourages parents to think of their children’s growth and academic performance in high school as an opportunity to build a resume and let their children develop who they are and what they’re about.
“Sometimes in work or in school we find that we take a class or try something and we double back and realize we’re not good at that or that’s not somewhere that we’re happy, and that’s OK,” she said. “That’s not a failure. That’s just an opportunity to find out who they are academically and socially.”
Students can feel pressure in high school to focus more on getting into a certain college to the exclusion of developing who they are in the moment. And transitioning back to school can complicate matters further.
“I think this transition time of starting at a new prestigious school can be very daunting for new students because they’re trying to get settled socially as well as academically,” Tursi said. “That can feel really hard for the student and also for the parents because they don’t have their emotional support team with other parents yet.”
With an increasing focus on getting into not only college but also a prestigious college with rigorous admissions, students may enter the high school school year already carrying significant pressure. Remembering that one can be excellent in more ways than excelling academically can go a long way toward alleviating some of that pressure, Tursi said.
“We oftentimes make the mistake of thinking that only the selective schools are good for our kids, and I think that’s a mistake,” she said. “There are a lot of different ways by which kids go to college and are happy there.”
The focus now? Get them through high school first.
While Tursi encourages families to not stress over students getting into certain colleges, she does encourage conversations on general expectations about college from the time a student is in middle school. It’s best to avoid surprises about financial expectations, location, the student’s contributions and other variables, she said.
“Oftentimes, I have kids under a false impression that they’ll be selecting any (college) and then discover that mom and dad actually had a budget for college,” Tursi said. “It’s really helpful to discuss that early on.”
Tursi promotes regular “sanity checks” within families to examine the flow of their entire week and assess whether everyone has enough time to meet obligations, rest and spend time not under pressure to be “on.”
“I think it’s really important for the student to understand where they’re going to be a student,” she said.
That means carving out time for homework and unplugging from devices and social media, but it also means setting boundaries so the student isn’t expected to be studying all the time.
“Where I tend to get big rushes of kids tends to be in October where it starts settling in that they’re not starting the academic year out strong and in December where they have their first semester grade under their belts,” Tursi said. “I really encourage families to check in weekly and have a time that they check in weekly so they can kind of pace themselves…”
So, what are some helpful ways for handling stress?
“I think it’s really important to know all students, even the students they think everything is so easy for, are probably struggling too,” Tursi said.
There is no shame or stigma in seeking mental health support, she added. Instead, it’s a sign of a well family. How to know if a student is in need of more support? When students begin failing at something, it’s worth taking a look, she said.
“Our kids in Northern Virginia have had exposure to these academic (pressures) their whole lives, and so when they start academically not being able to hang with the norm, if they’re not able to keep an average grade in a class, that’s a warning sign,” she said. “When kids are starting to be tired all the time, that’s a warning sign, (as are) any kind of changes with sleep or eating patterns.”
As for parents, it’s important to remember children can only be “on” and able to perform for so long before stress begins to take its toll.
“Our ultimate goal for our children and their ultimate goals for themselves may be different, and we may need to strike a healthy balance between those two goals,” she added. “I think in Northern Virginia we see a huge amount of pressure toward being excellent. It’s hard to have the pressure to be excellent in all areas, and I think that’s an unfair pressure that we put on our kids here.”
Tursi also specializes in providing support for those who have experienced trauma. She has worked cases involving the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Columbine school shooting, bank robbery victims and a number of other scenarios.