It’s that time of year again, when summer is winding down, and that sweet mid-summer period during which many young people bask in the « no school, no problems » sunshine is coming to an end. For many, summer represents a stress-free pause before getting back to the regularly scheduled program. However, for some, the summer before a major transition is rife with anticipatory stress.
Academic transitions, whether from elementary to high school and beyond, are both a period of great opportunity and vulnerability. Research findings indicate that, on average, students experience moderate increases in depression and anxiety symptoms in the summer before the transition to post-secondary education. Globally, one-third of college students will experience clinically significant depression or anxiety symptoms in their first year. This is not surprising given that academic transitions include a large dose of the four universal ingredients that generate stress: novelty, unpredictability, threatened self-esteem or self-image and low sense of control.
While some degree of anticipatory stress is normal and adaptive, here are a few key points to consider if you are supporting a student or if you are navigating an academic transition yourself:
Do some recon: Getting familiar with a new environment ahead of time can significantly decrease anticipatory stress. Gradually discovering and figuring out for themselves where things are and how things work gives students the sense of security they need before fully immersing themselves.
Make connections: It is only natural that academic transitions force changes in students’ social networks. Social connectedness is a powerful buffer against stress in this context. Challenging unhelpful thoughts about their likability and ability to make friends may aid students in opening up.
Encourage independence: Parenting strategies that encourage autonomy have a positive impact on students’ mental health and well-being in academic transitions. Encouraging the student to take charge in some decisions may help provide a greater sense of control in times of significant change.
Foster self-compassion: Research suggests that the ability to extend kindness, acceptance, understanding and compassion towards oneself is the most consistent predictor of a successful academic transition1. Practising self-compassion may help students reframe critical thoughts that threaten their self-esteem and undermine their ability to adapt.
In truth, anticipatory stress, while normal, does little to promote a successful academic transition. Rather, by taking action and practising self-compassion, all students have the opportunity to effectively level-up academically while also thriving socially and emotionally.