At a glance
High school pressures can be extra stressful for kids who learn and think differently.
They might feel more anxious and worried than other kids their age.
You can help relieve some of your child’s stress and build confidence.
High school can bring a whole new level of stress for kids who learn and think differently. More work and thoughts of life after high school can loom large for teens.
Here are common reasons for high school stress — and how to help.
1. Fear of failure
Kids who’ve struggled in school might come to high school with a history of setbacks. Past failures can make the demands of high school feel even greater.
What you can do: Remind kids of their strengths and of the strides they’ve already made. Talk about how they didn’t give up and how that will help them now and in the future. You can also:
- Get an expert’s advice on how to overcome fear of failure in school.
- Explore tips to help your child cope with test anxiety.
2. Tougher academics and more responsibilities
The academic demands increase with every year of high school. Even if kids made great strides in middle school, they know the work will get more challenging. At the same time, they have to speak up more for what they need, or self-advocate.
What you can do: Remind kids of the support they have — both at school and at home. Encourage them to reach out to teachers for help. Kids who have an can reach out to the IEP case manager, too, and even ask about having self-advocacy goals included in the IEP. You can also:
- Help your child find the right mix of classes and activities.
- Work on building strong study habits and learning to slow down on homework.
3. Social pressures
Social situations can also be a source of stress for teens. They might feel pressure to fit in, to be popular, and to have a lot of friends — whether these are real friends or not. And as teens get more independent, they may find themselves in new and even risky situations where they need to make tough choices.
What you can do: Read about dating hurdles kids may face. Role-playing can help. You can also:
- Find ways to help your child handle school cliques.
- Get tips on when to let teens face the consequences of their actions.
4. Uncertainty about the future
In high school, kids have to start thinking about what kind of career they want to pursue. They also have to choose a path: college, work, vocational training. Kids with IEPs will go through a formal process to plan that transition. But that alone may not lessen the stress.
What you can do: Remind kids that feeling unsure or worried about the future is normal. Explain that there are many ways to thrive and be happy in life. You can also:
- Talk about different paths kids can take after high school and career options — including careers for kids who don’t want to sit at a desk.
- Encourage your child to watch the documentary Being You. It’s about three young people who learn and think differently who travel around the country to explore what the future may hold for them.
5. Concerns about college
Just thinking about college can be stressful for kids who learn and think differently. But the process of getting in has its own stressors. These include college entrance exams, filling out applications, and choosing a school.
What you can do: Talk about types of colleges and how they differ. You can work together to find colleges that are a good fit. If your child is eligible, talk about how you’ll work with the case manager to get college testing accommodations. You can also:
- Give your child a sense of control by discussing which might be a better fit: the SAT or ACT.
- Explain why it’s important that your child take the lead in choosing a college, and share realistic tips to help guide choices.
It’s natural for teens who learn and think differently to feel stressed out. But ongoing stress can build and sometimes may lead to mental health issues. Know the signs of anxiety and depression. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider if you have concerns.
Keep in mind that stress isn’t always bad. Learn about the difference between good stress and bad stress.
Social pressures and fear of failure are common stressors for teens who learn and think differently.
Tell your child that feeling unsure or worried about the future is common.
Ongoing stress can lead to anxiety or depression, so be aware of the signs.
Tell us what interests you
About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions, and co-planning.