Back to School DBT: Skills to Support Emotional Wellbeing

By Geoffrey M. Golia, LCSW
Geoffrey is the Clinical Director of New York Center for Living and the Leader of the NYCFL DBT Consultation Team

While it may be summer for a few more weeks, for millions of students, this time of year marks the return to the classroom. Whether you’re in high school or college, starting a new school, re-adjusting to the classroom, dealing with substance use among peers, facing social media and peer pressure, or trying to protect your recovery, this time of year can be a stressful one.

Maintaining your emotional wellbeing while pursuing your educational, athletic, and extracurricular goals takes discipline, honesty, and vulnerability—which don’t always come easy. Below are a few tips drawn from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to ensure you start this school year off right and set yourself up for success.

Acknowledge and Accept Challenges—the beginning of the school year often brings up feelings of anxiety and loss for returning students. For students starting college or a new school, there are often fears of the unknown, challenges of building relationships with new peers, and concerns around navigating a new environment. Radical acceptance is a powerful tool for recognizing challenging situations, discerning what is in your control and what is not, detaching from the emotional burden of those situations, and freeing yourself to act in a way that prioritizes your growth and healing. Yes, the return to school can be difficult, but by accepting this reality, we can develop and implement strategies to survive and thrive throughout the year.

Share Your Challenges and Seek Support—we’re only as sick as our secrets. A huge barrier to receiving support when you are struggling is being unwilling to share when you are struggling, whether it’s with substance use, mental health, peer pressure, or bullying. It’s not easy to admit you have a problem and need help. Common barriers include shame, feeling like no one will understand or care, and believing asking for help is not the strong move. The thing is, asking for help is the strong move, thought that is not always apparent. One DBT skill that can be helpful here is opposite action—when your issues lead you to feel that no one will understand or that you are alone in your struggles, there is a strong indication that you should reach out, not keep it in. You will be surprised at the number of people who will step up if you ask for help.

Develop a Mindful Routine—while many young people engage in camp, employment, academic programming, or other activities that structure their days during summer break, it is often a time when the routines of the school year fall away. The return to the routine of school, along with the pressures of academic success, can be difficult and add additional stress and worry. Mindfulness is a practice that allows you to focus on the present, ground relax our minds and bodies, and—like radical acceptance—disengage from judgment and emotion. Mindfulness can take the form of meditation, guided imagery, breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation. Like all self-care practices, incorporating mindfulness takes discipline and commitment—the more you do it, the easier and more beneficial it becomes. Consider including mindfulness as the foundation for your routine as you return to school.

Establish Boundaries—boundaries are the distance by which you can love yourself and others simultaneously. While many people can identify their boundaries, establishing and communicating them can be difficult. And yet, so many challenges that emerge during the school year and beyond arise due to people violating your boundaries, including violating your own boundaries by engaging in activities that do not serve you. When faced with peer pressure to use substances, for instance, being able to assert your boundaries—i.e. remaining committed to not using drugs and alcohol—is vital. Here, I’m reminded of the old saying: “Speak up even if your voice shakes”. As with mindfulness practice, the more we establish and communicate our boundaries, the easier it becomes.

For parents, this time of year can also bring stress and anxiety about the safety and wellbeing of your kids. Aside from the just the typical stress of homework, overscheduling, extracurriculars, or sending your kid off to college for the first time, there are also concerns around substance use, mental health, social problems, violence and school safety, and the like. Here are some tips for parents:

Know the Warning Signs—periods of transition, like return to school, can create stressors for adolescents and young adults. At the same time, substance use and mental health issues can emerge anytime. Even for parents who are very connected with their kids, changes that are indicative of an emerging substance use or mental health issue can come on fast. Children naturally seek to “separate and individuate” during adolescences; they also often experience moodiness and irritability as they emerge from childhood into a new world of responsibilities, pressures, and opportunities. However, some changes in mood or behavior are worth exploring more with them, including declining school performance, deteriorating relationships with parents and siblings, change in friends (and reluctance to introduce you to them), presence of drug paraphernalia and substances, the smell alcohol or smoke on clothes, mood swings and hostility, changes in eating and sleep, and increases in dishonest behavior.

Creating Emotional Safety—your child’s ability to be open and honest with you as a parent is directly related to their belief that you will respond to them in a way that ensures emotional safety. Your ability as a parent to meet your kids where they are is dependent on how we manage our emotions and cope with the challenges of parenting (and everything else going on within our lives). Ask yourself: How do I ensure emotional safety in my relationship with my kid(s)? How do I model my own management of emotional challenges in my life? With respect to that last question, the skills discussed in DBT can help anyone to regulate emotions, tolerate distress, and become more interpersonally effective, including parents and caregivers. These questions and the concept of emotional safety extend to young people in college as well, as we see many issues emerge in the first semester of school. The capacity to maintain emotional safety in the relationship could be the difference between being able to intervene early vs. potentially having to disrupt the school year to address a larger issue.

Plan/Call for Help—discuss a plan ahead of time for when your child may be faced with substance use by peers or friends. Help them develop strategies for avoiding use and let them know if they become uncomfortable at a party or event that they can call you and you will come get them in a non-judgmental way. The key here is non-judgmental; part of creating emotional safety is allowing kids to come to you with mistakes, curiosity, and concerns and responding with love, empathy, and gratitude. Yes, it is vital to be authoritative—setting clear expectations and appropriate consequences and sticking to them—but the goal is not punishment, it is helping to shape good judgment and decision-making in our kids.

We’re here to help! The New York Center for Living has been supporting young people and families since 2007, providing clinical, psychiatric, and peer services to support substance use and mental health recovery. If you or someone in your life is struggling this school year, do not hesitate to reach out to us at 212-712-8800 or

Also, if you’re interested in hearing more on this and other topics related to substance use recovery for young adults and parents, please join my online seminar with NYC-Parents In Action (NYC-PIA) on Thursday, September 28th, 2023!