Back to School Stress in Children
Back to School Stress in Children: Words of Wisdom from Diane Ferber, MA, MA, CAS School Psychology and Marriage and Family Therapy
With our children going back to school and the impending shift of seasons, it's important to note that even the most exciting changes can bring the stress of additional demands and time commitments. Stress is simply an automatic response to a perceived threat, inherent in all change. Research tells us that not all stress is bad; a manageable level is healthy and serves to maximize performance. For our children, the stress of increased academic and behavioral expectations for each grade, and developmentally more complex social interactions, are inevitable.
Problems occur when stress is prolonged and constant, and/or is more than your child can handle. And each person's coping threshold is different and unique, even within the same family. For children--whose bodies, minds and social-emotional selves are developing--overwhelming levels or sustained stress can have long term effects.
If you see signs and symptoms of stress in your child (keep reading for a list of what to look for), there are ways we, as parents, can help our children manage the stress of the back to school transition:
Model positive coping and problem solving. We are our children's most important role models in handling stress in healthy ways. When YOU are stressed, how you act and interact with your children can have a greater impact than what you may say directly to them.
Tell your children you love them - and that love will not waiver with grades, winning, performance, struggles, behavior or mistakes. Don’t make your love or acceptance conditional on your child’s performance.
Create opportunities to talk one-to-one in car rides, bed time, or any time children are less guarded; make sure you give them your full attention, even if you have to put down your cell or stop what you are doing.
Morning routines set the tone. A stressful morning can derail the day for all of us; prepare things the night before, and leave enough time so YOU don't feel rushed. Avoid stressful discussions in the car or at breakfast; make the last interaction in the morning a positive one.
Help your children develop time management and decision making skills. Let them make decisions about non-critical things, and let them learn from their mistakes as well as successes. Children who are more comfortable making decisions will feel more in control and less stressed.
Help your children cope with disappointments by helping them process and understand the feeling of disappointment, and differentiating what they can impact (e.g., study differently the next time) and what they can't control (an event being cancelled.)
Teach your children relaxation skills such as deep breaths, picturing a positive situation, and relaxing their body.
Provide 'down time' for your children even if it means letting go of some after school activities. Too much programming, including enrichment, can be stressful and can inhibit self-soothing, creative thinking, and the ability to entertain oneself.
Set realistic expectations for them, recognizing their effort as well as their success. The pursuit of perfection can markedly increase stress levels. Remind them that school is about learning and grades are only one measure of their success.
Encourage healthy sleep and eating to give their bodies the right tools to deal with negative stressors.
Share stories about your experiences in dealing with specific stressors such as the first day of school, a party, an interview, a tough conversation with a friend or colleague. These can be real, made up, or about an older sibling, but they will provide reassurance. Role play with your child about how an anticipated situation might go.
If you or your child's teacher, other family members or caregivers see warning signs that your child's coping skills are being outmatched by their level of stress, pay attention and seek support. Warning signs include a change from your child's typical functioning:
Complaints of frequent headaches and/or stomach aches (stress impacts body chemistry, which impacts these areas of the body!)
School avoidance or refusal
For younger children: trouble sleeping, concentrating; impaired learning and judgement; changes in eating, appetite; lower frustration tolerance; regressive behavior; frequent trips to the nurse or office at school
For older children, look for increased talk about stress, or refusal to talk; mood swings, tearfulness, irritability, difficulty concentrating; increased hyperactivity; lying; bullying behavior; testing rules with parents and or teachers; a drop in grades; diminished interest in activities/hobbies; isolating.
We don't need research to tell us that one stressed family member can disrupt the patterns of the entire family! If you are concerned, please seek support. It is amazing what an outside, knowledgeable perspective can do to reassure, activate your child's and your own strengths and resources, and address problems as they arise.
Diane is an experienced and compassionate child and family therapist, seeing children, adults, families and groups in Stamford, CT. Please email her at Therapyforchangellc.com or Diane@dianeferber.com, or call 203-403-2089 for more information.