Depending on which student you talk to, back-to-school season may be a welcome shift back into a familiar routine with friends, an anxiety-provoking transition that raises fears about classwork, bullies, and school violence, or a complex combination of both. While back-to-school jitters are normal, intense fear or refusal to return are signals that your child needs additional emotional support.
One unexpected sign of this struggle could be offhand remarks about a “back-to-school necklace,” or internet searches and social media posts related to the term. In some cases, a teen might be referencing despair or suicidal feelings about returning to school, similar to a meme that pairs the phrase “back-to-school necklace” with suicidal behavior. (Mashable isn’t sharing more details about this term to avoid spreading suicide contagion to vulnerable readers. If you’re a student who found this story via that search term, please consider talking to a trusted friend or adult about your feelings, or consider contacting the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.)
Whether teens are using this term as slang to offhandedly indicate they’re not thrilled to go back or they’re actively feeling suicidal about returning, it’s clear that parents are worried about what their kids will experience this school year. A recent survey of 532 parents by On Our Sleeves, a national movement for children’s mental health, found that 79 percent of respondents are worried about issues like bullying, racism and discrimination, school safety and violence, and ongoing challenges related to the pandemic.
Ariana Hoet, Ph.D., clinical director of On Our Sleeves and a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, says that when children make references to phrases like “back-to-school necklace,” it’s possible they’re trying to express frustration but have no intention of harming themselves and do not feel suicidal.
“Whereas some children truly are feeling that hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, feeling like things won’t get better, and those are the kids I worry about,” she says.
Either way, it’s critical that parents take such references seriously so they can determine the extent of their child’s anxiety. This can feel daunting for parents, particularly those unaccustomed to discussing mental health with their children. But by watching for certain warning signs, engaging in nonjudgmental conversations, and acting swiftly if their child is severely distressed, parents can intervene before the situation becomes a crisis.
Warning signs of suicide risk you should know
Hoet says that children who are anxious about returning to school may develop physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches. They may withdraw from social or family activities. If they’re experiencing an anxiety disorder, they may have a panic attack or refuse to attend school.
Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., a psychologist and vice president of mission engagement for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says that warning signs of suicide risk typically show up in three ways: talk, behavior, and mood.
Learning the warning signs for suicide risk can help parents intervene before a crisis.
Credit: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
A teen might overtly say they want to end their life, but they could also be less direct by lamenting that life is pointless or that they have nothing to which they can look forward. Their behavior might include sudden isolation, substance use, and searching online for ways to end their life. If their mood shifts quickly and they become sad, angry, or agitated often, it could indicate they’re not coping well.
“These are warning signs that tell us that this is a time to lean in a little bit more, to find out what’s happening,” says Marshall. “It may also be a time to ask directly about suicide.”
Though specific descriptions of methods can contribute to contagion, asking if an adolescent feels suicidal doesn’t increase their risk of an attempt. Marshall says that parents can calmly note to their child that with everything going on, sometimes people feel hopeless and may want to end their life, and then ask, “I’m wondering if you’ve ever had those kinds of thoughts.”
How to talk about back-to-school anxiety
While parents tend to focus on the positive aspects of school when talking to a nervous child, that could inadvertently minimize their fears. Drawing on perspective, parents might emphasize that things kids insist will last forever, like the pain of a breakup or drama between friends, will ebb and flow. But teens have yet to gain distance from these challenges, so the intensity of their pain can feel permanent.
Marshall says that open-ended, nonjudgmental conversations that validate how a child feels are key to helping them cope. She urges parents to focus on listening, and avoid making their child’s concern smaller. Instead, they should try to genuinely hear what their child is saying and not jump to fix problems for them.
Hoet says that some parents don’t want their children to feel uncomfortable emotions, so they might avoid those feelings instead. Indeed, nearly all parents polled in a recent On Our Sleeves survey said they felt it was important to talk about mental health issues, but the majority of respondents said they needed help starting those conversations, and that they didn’t have those discussions with their own parents growing up. The campaign’s list of conversation starters for children include questions like, “When you feel sad, what do you think about to make yourself happy again?”
For adolescents and teens, Marshall recommends asking them what might help with back-to-school anxiety. Parents can also speak candidly about the risks of certain online experiences, like bullying or exposure to suicide contagion in online forums, and help kids set limits as needed. By framing suicide as a health issue instead of something to be kept secret, parents can lessen the stigma that surrounds thoughts of wanting to die. That can empower a teen to talk about how they or a friend are affected by those feelings.
How to help your child with back-to-school anxiety
Lydia McNeiley, a middle-school counselor from Hammond, Indiana, says that parents who are worried about their child’s well-being should contact school staff, including a counselor or psychologist if one is available. Parents can confidentially raise concerns about issues like bullying and discrimination, but ask that their student’s name be kept private. McNeiley, who serves as the school counselor district coordinator, says counselors can take this information and bring students in to discuss what’s happening, both to help resolve a conflict and offer the affected teen additional support. Parents can also encourage their kids to talk to a counselor or trusted teacher about their challenges.
McNeiley says that adolescents can’t always identify what exactly is bothering them. For example, if they’re being harassed or discriminated against but the attacks are more like microaggressions than blatant homophobia or racism, the student may have difficulty pinpointing why they feel uncomfortable. That’s why it’s critical for adults to validate the student’s emotions, particularly if the student belongs to a group historically targeted by discrimination.
If a parent feels overwhelmed by what their child is experiencing or expressing, Marshall recommends trusting that instinct and seeking help without delay. That could mean contacting their teen’s doctor to ask for a referral or reaching out to a local mental health professional or organization for resources and peer support. She says parents don’t need a detailed plan before talking to their child about getting them help. Instead, a parent can let the child know that help is available, and that they’ll figure next steps out together. Of course, it’s critical that the parent follows through.
And while parents might be inclined to dismiss internet slang related to mental health as benign, McNeiley says to take it seriously.
“They might not realize that tomorrow could be better,” she says of kids experiencing school-related stress or anxiety. “It could be like a little internet trend, but this is their life, and we don’t know what their mind state is, so we want to be cautious and address everything.”
If you’re feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to somebody. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected] If you don’t like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at crisischat.org. Here is a list of international resources.