September 2007

School Stress: Helping Your Child Cope

Author: Teresa Fitzgibbons

Whether it’s from struggling to tie shoes in kindergarten to anxiety over the upcoming SATs, school stress is real and affects kids of all ages. In fact, today’s students are under more pressure than ever before; legislators have raised the academic bar and teachers are accountable for ensuring that students succeed. Add the social and emotional pressures that are part of growing up to the academic demands, and it’s no wonder that kids are feeling “stressed out.”

“Stress is real for all of us, including children,” said Colleen Kowal, guidance counselor with Beaufort County School District. “What seems trivial to adults can be overwhelming for a child.”

Children can learn far more than ABCs and algebra equations in school. It’s a place to both learn about life’s challenges and practice solutions. While it’s understandable that parents want to “fix” whatever may be bothering their child, doing so is detrimental in the long run. Sooner or later, children have to learn to solve their own problems, and that includes how to manage stress.

Stability and consistency at home are the best antidotes to both academic and social stress. Children who feel confidant and cared for at home are likely to take those feelings with them to school. No matter how old they are, children need shows of physical affection and positive feedback from parents.

“Often in our efforts to be the best parents, we forget what our grandparents already understood,” said Kowal. “No is a good answer.” Don’t let children become over-scheduled and involved in every extracurricular activity or sport that comes along. Rest and nutrition go a long way in combating stress. Enforce bedtimes and healthy mealtimes. Mealtimes and the time spent in the car are when children are most likely to open up to parents. Make an effort to be available, and don’t dismiss their concerns.

“There is a great deal of research that supports that children feel our stress as well,” said Kowal. “Children do not possess the ability to understand that our problems are beyond their control.” Parents should not share their difficulties and problems with children. Children learn by example, and parents who maintain positive attitudes, demonstrate problem-solving techniques, and manage their own stress are more likely to have children who do the same.

So, what can a parent do when a child comes home after a rough day at school? Listen to the child.

Early Childhood/Elementary

Possible stressors: New childcare arrangements; changes in the school routine; substitute teachers; school rules that are different from rules at home; delayed developmental skills—not having coordination for activities like cutting with scissors; inability to master letters, numbers, or sounds.

Possible signs of stress: Emergence of nervous habits (e.g. nail or finger biting); bedwetting; tantrums; regression to earlier behavior such as thumb sucking; playing sick.

How to help: Be a good listener, and read between the lines; encourage the child to talk about his feelings; give lots of physical affection or a gentle massage; offer soothing words; teach the child to imagine a happy place and describe it; role-play or use puppets to help resolve situations.

Upper Elementary

Possible stressors: Difficulties with reading comprehension or math concepts; poor grades, tests; being placed in a “low” group; peer competition; being left out at lunch or recess; being teased; poor athletic ability; having too many activities outside of school and not enough “downtime.”

Possible signs of stress: Nail-biting, teeth-grinding, and other nervous habits; stuttering and other speech problems; emergence of perfectionism; frequent crying or “breakdowns” over routine activities; exhaustion; “acting out” at school; frequent visits to the nurse’s office.

How to help: Point out ways to turn negatives into positives; use guided imagery by which the child imagines himself successfully solving problems; teach the child relaxation and breathing techniques; keep expectations realistic; cut back on activities; de-emphasize perfection; get a tutor or work with the teacher to determine effective study techniques.

Middle and High School

Middle School stressors: Dealing with several teachers with different expectations; bullies, cyber-bullying, and cliques; popularity; grades and test anxiety; increased responsibility for homework, studying, and long-term projects; speeches and competitions; lack of necessary time management and organizational skills; exposure to students from different schools; drugs, alcohol, and/or gangs.

High School stressors: Time! Add together the hours spent in school with a couple of hours of homework, part-time jobs, sports and other extra-curricular activities—the child is booked up; conflicting demands from teachers, coaches, bosses, and parents on his time and priorities; test anxiety and academic workload; ACT/SAT exams; class ranking; choosing and getting accepted to college; paying for college.

Possible signs of stress: Irritability and depression; perfectionism, withdrawal from family and friends; giving up—not even attempting to complete work or do well; less attention to personal grooming; appetite and sleep changes; sudden drop in academic performance, truancy, and behavioral problems.

How to help: Introduce yoga and meditation; encourage writing in a journal; encourage music and exercise as stress relievers; say no when the child tries to take on too much; help establish priorities; use monthly calendars to write down due dates and other obligations; help the child plan how and when to get things done; let him vent.

Some children, particularly those with existing anxiety and depression issues, are more susceptible to stress. So are children with extremely sensitive personalities, who can’t handle criticism, and who have parents with high-strung personalities. When parents have unrealistic expectations or push children too hard, children are more likely to develop stress-related physical or emotional problems.

A certain amount of stress and reasonable responses to it are to be expected while children are growing up. If stress starts to interfere with the child’s ability to live everyday life and succeed in school, or his/her physical and emotional well-being, it may be indicative of a much more serious problem, and parents should seek professional help.

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