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Taming School Stress: A Parent’s Guide

By Monica Arora, MD February 06, 2024 Posted in: Mental Health, Parenting

No one likes it, but stress is normal. In fact, stress is sometimes healthy and can help you perform better. Stress is also an individual experience. We all have different thresholds for what we consider stressful, and that includes children. 

Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. For children, stress can be placed into two categories:

School Stress for Children

  • Academic - Tests, deadlines, workload, instructional pace, a disability that has not been identified, teacher relationships 
  • Social - Peer relationships, peer pressure, bullying
  • Environmental - Sensory overload, too big of school, too crowded hallways, class size

Outside-of-School Stress 

  • Family dynamics/household stress 
  • Parental expectations for high performance
  • Overscheduling with sports and extracurricular activities

While stress can help nudge children to get things done or to perform at a higher level, too much stress can affect their readiness to learn and their progress. 

5 Stress-Taming Tips Parents Can Use to Help Children

A parent’s first instinct is to protect their kids. That’s why it’s a natural response to step in and solve problems. But there’s a reason children often say, for example: “Please don’t talk to my teacher yet!” 

If you hover or become a helicopter parent, you’re giving children another thing to worry about – the sense that they are disappointing you. 

As parents, our role is to help our children learn to deal with everyday stressors. Rather than solving their problems, it’s more important to guide children in how to deal with stress. Some helpful stress-taming tips: 

1. Pay Attention to Indicators of Possible Stress

  • Somatic - Refusal to go to school, poor motivation. 
  • Physical symptoms - Irritability, acting out.
  • Academic/behavior decline - Grades or performance suffering. 

2. Identify the Cause

  • Some causes are very evident; some are very subtle. 
  • Ask your child about possible stressors, but realize they will tell you what they want to tell you.

3. Open the Door to a Conversation and Listen

  • Let them open up at their own pace and give them more than one chance to talk. Sometimes kids are not ready when you are ready. 
  • Teens often struggle to articulate their feelings, so pay attention to words and actions.

4. Offer Age-appropriate Suggestions for Stressful Situations

  • You might recommend breaking a stressful project into smaller tasks, or suggest the child talk to his teacher about doing extra-credit work, for example. 

5. Be Patient

  • Realize you’re not going to solve the stressor immediately. 

Keep in mind, how you respond to stress sets the tone for your children. Not only do they follow your guidance, they also emulate the behavior they observe. Practice these stress-positive habits in your everyday life. 

8 Stress-Positive Habits for Parents

1. Respect the Basics: Self-care Is Important

Self-care includes:

  • Adequate sleep
  • Healthy diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Digital/electronic boundaries

2. Be a Present Parent

  • Carve out some quality time to spend with them.
  • It’s important that your child knows you’re there if they need you. 
  • It’s also important to know your child and how they respond to life events.
  • Offer meaningful validation and praise. 

3. Make Organization Part of Your Daily Household

  • Use calendars and agendas.
  • Planning ahead enables them to prioritize their tasks in hand and encourages them to use efficient time management skills.

4. Be Aware of Overscheduling

  • Aim for social and academic balance.
  • Lack of downtime can drain children and adults emotionally. 

5. Set Clear, Achievable Goals

  • Chunk large goals into smaller tasks to reinforce progress. 
  • Reflect and reframe failure to make it a learning opportunity.

6. Encourage Healthy Support. Guide Children to Do These Things 

  • Find a support network for school/extracurricular activities.
  • Ask for help if needed and educate them of the resources present.

7. Remember to Look at the Bigger Picture

  • Ups and downs are part of every child’s and every adult’s life. 

8. Watch for Pervasive Symptoms or Depressive Symptoms

  • Seek an evaluation if needed.

A positive approach to stress can help parents build relationships in which children feel supported and learn how to manage daily stressors independently and successfully. 

Monica Arora, MD
Monica Arora, MD

Monica Arora, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatry provider at CHI Health.

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