Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and mental health.
Back-to-school season is in full swing! While some kids are downright ecstatic, your older kids might not be ready to face the pressures of returning to school. One quick warning sign things aren't as cheery as they seem? Hearing or seeing your tween or teen refer to a "back-to-school necklace." It sounds innocent enough — almost sweet. Before you hit the jewelry aisle at Target, though, you should know it's not as black-and-white as it seems. This euphemism deals with the stress of returning to school and is associated with some dark imagery. While making your teen try on their 15th and 16th pair of possible "perfect for school" jeans, you might want to ask them about their thoughts on a back-to-school necklace. Just be prepared for a heavier conversation than you might otherwise expect.
Upon hearing "back-to-school necklace," you probably think of one of those sweet little cards with matching necklaces or bracelets that remind your kiddo that you're wearing one, too, and thinking of them while they're at school. So heartwarming. So innocent. But, let's be real: Gen Z is deeper than that. And they're probably calling us "cheugy" for even considering those things.
What is a back-to-school necklace?
A "back-to-school necklace" is a dark euphemism for the dread of returning to school and the pressures that come with each new year. It literally ties back to imagery of a noose around one's neck. Seem alarmist? Like one of those things only Boomers worry about? Think again. Even Urban Dictionary is onto this morbid trend. They define "back-to-school necklace" as "another name for a noose. This is due to the utter despair you feel when school starts back up again."
Is "back-to-school necklace" really that concerning?
Anytime someone ideates anything related to self-harm or suicide, it merits enough concern to reach out to a mental health professional. But if you hear your tween or teen using the term "back-to-school necklace” and want to gauge their understanding or definition of it, you may start with a conversation.
After all, Gen Z is dark and deep. They've spent nearly their entire lives living in a country at war. They've witnessed countless school shootings (and often a lack of proper response from the adults and lawmakers). They've been inundated with images of civil unrest, police brutality, and the dumpster fire that is our planet right now. While a more jaded person might tell you things have always been "this bad," there's no denying that Gen Z’ers have been exposed to much more of it, thanks to social media. You can't just escape the news by turning off the TV like we did as teens. Our world is now constantly connected to what is happening — the good and the bad. As such, this next generation of tweens, teens, and young adults are just more on-the-nose when it comes to the morose than the generations before them.
In other words, for many kids, a "back-to-school necklace" may only imply dread. And, yes, that dread should definitely be discussed. Still, it may not always be a cry for help so much as slang they’ve picked up from their peers.
How do you talk about back-to-school necklaces?
Talking to your kid about anything serious is always a struggle. If you're a "geriatric millennial" parent, in particular, you know the cringe that comes with starting heavy conversations and sounding more like an afterschool special than a parent or friend. You also know that approaching things too seriously will often just lead your kid to pull back further. While you could wait for your kid to broach the subject with you, it's probably best to get ahead of it. Tread lightly, though. You could start with a casual, "Hey, have you heard about this? I saw something online and was curious."
Granted, your tween or teen might meet your question with an eye-roll and scoff, "It's not that deep." The truth is that it might not be "that deep" for many kids. You know that back-to-school dread. You felt it not that long ago. While the phrasing is dark, some kids might use it more as a cynical euphemism and nothing more. To them, it might just be a trendy, catchy way of saying, "I'm not looking forward to our third year of French."
How you talk to your kids will depend a lot on your relationship with them. If you're pretty casual with your Gen Z'er 90% of the time, you can also try being casual about this. You could take them out for Starbucks (if they don’t think that’s too cheugy) and ask, "Is the back-to-school stress getting to you yet? When I was in school — yes, 100 years ago — I always felt so much pressure before that first week back." If they indicate they're feeling it too, you can channel your inner-mom-from-an-after-school-special and say, "School can suck; I'm sorry. If you're stressed, you can unload on me." If it feels organic, you can then bring up the term "back-to-school necklace" during your convo.
How can you be what your kid needs?
If you've made it far enough that your kid has admitted they're feeling anxious about school, you need to know there are many ways to move from there. Much of it will depend on how deeply their anxiety and feelings of pressure go — surface-level enough to joke about it, or to the point that it's affecting their mental health? If it's the latter, you should absolutely seek out professional help who can guide your child through and help them find their way back to a healthy baseline emotionally and psychologically.
But maybe your kid is the surface-level kid. It's important to remember that just because they open up to you doesn't mean they want you to fix it. Once you're on to your kid's stress about school, try this phrase: "Do you want me to listen, coach, advise, or fix?" Here's what is needed from each of those answers:
Listen — That's it, Mama. Your tween or teen just needs to unleash all of their troubles while you remain neutral and... absorb. Sip your coffee. Cram some granola into your mouth. Do whatever you need to do not to say a word. When they finish their thoughts, say, "I heard all of that. If you want me to respond with advice or a pep talk, I can. But I won't unless you ask."
Advise — If they come at you with multiple concerns, do not assume to know which is the most problematic. Ask them what they want help with first. Then help them figure out how they can tackle that issue in the new year. Ex. "You're most worried about AP History? Are you asking to drop the class or for help managing what's needed from you for that class?"
Coach — Coaching is different from advising. Coaching comes with a certain level of affirmation. Ex. "You're stressed because your best friend won't have lunch with you this semester? That bites. Which friends will be at lunch with you? Text/Snap and see what you can find out. Let's come up with a plan! You have so many friends, buddy. Let's come up with a few backup options for who you can sit with."
Fix — This is hard. This is what you always want to do, but sometimes know you can't or shouldn't. No mom really wants to say, "I can't fix this problem for you." But if you talk through it, maybe you can come up with something to ease the pressure. Start by asking if they know how they would want you to fix it. Then work backwards until you reach a compromise. Ex. "You can't drop AP History; you need the credit, and you've done everything else. What if we drop this elective that requires so much homework? What if I let up on some of your chores so you have more time? Would it help if I told you that I don't expect you to get an A?"
What should you do if your kid seems to be genuinely struggling?
While it might not be "that deep" for many students, there will be other students who truly feel like they might not make it through the school year. If they start using those kinds of terms or adding that much dread, it's time to seek professional intervention. This can look like so many things. Start with talking to their pediatrician or primary care provider. Reach out to the school counselor. Finding a therapist who works with tweens and teens can be critical. And, maybe, consider alternative schooling options if you feel it's in the best interest of your child's mental health and wellbeing.
School is a different experience for different kids. So if your child is especially distressed about starting the academic year, look out for signs of depression, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Lack of interest in favorite activities and family or friends
- Sensitivity to rejection
- Low self-esteem
- Extreme self-criticism
- Decline in energy
- sleeping excessively
- Sudden weight loss or gain
If you or someone you know is having a medical or mental health emergency, please call 911 immediately. If you or someone you know is currently having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255 at any time. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
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