Back to School Pressures: Five Ways We're Stressing Out Our Kids (Plus five ways to help kids manage stress as they return to school)

Posted by Bryan Smith, Boys Town Press Author and Elementary School Counselor on Aug 29th 2019

We all want our children to be happy. And let’s face it, shouldn’t they be? After all, children don’t have jobs or bills to pay. We adults often wish we could go back to being a kid and not have to deal with all the stress being an adult brings. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

But if you stop and think about it for a minute, isn’t it the same, on some level, for children? We all experience different levels of stress. No, they may not have a paying job, but they do have responsibilities and the job of going to school. And just because it’s not the same kind of stress that we face, don’t think it’s not stressful for children, especially at this time of year when they're returning to school.

Here is a list of five common causes of stress in children that adults don’t always consider:

1. School

Trying to keep up with schoolwork and homework can cause a lot of stress. Whether it’s keeping up with their reading minutes, math facts, or a science experiment, students have a lot to juggle. And if you have a child who struggles when they're not perfect, then there’s an added layer of stress!

2. Social pressures

Children want to fit in and be liked. Have you heard the term “Keeping up with the Joneses’”? Well, it’s the same concept for children in school. Many times wanting to fit in means wearing the right things, sitting at the right lunch table, or acting certain ways. The mere thought of going school-level-viral for the wrong reasons, or being left out, can cause all kinds of stress!

3. Overscheduling

It’s true that as parents we tend to look at kids’ responsibilities and assume that it’s not as stressful for them because of the TYPE of activity. But many kids are so busy after school they rarely have time to truly go out and just play! Whether it’s homework, dance, sports, or another hobby, all of these limit their free time, and this fast-paced life can cause a lot of stress.

4. Minimizing their feelings

Have you ever heard, or said, the following to a child: “You think you have it tough now, just wait until you have bills to pay!”? I know I’ve thought it! But as adults, we have to remember, whether we think something is a big deal or not doesn’t matter. If our children see it as a big deal, then it is a big deal to them. Trying to minimize their feelings can just make it worse!

5. Pressures of the outside world

Children see, hear, and feel more than we know. Many children are gifted with intuition, empathizing and having strong feelings when those they care about are experiencing strife. Concerns like jobs/money/marital issues, politics, the environment and social concerns, food scarcity, and with recent events, health concerns, take center stage. Keep in mind that kids are picking up what’s being put down out there. Some are great about asking questions and talking about their concerns. Some tend to internalize those concerns more, which adds to stress and may lead to anxiety.

How to help kids manage stress

The good news is there are things you can do to help your children deal with stress in their lives. One of the first steps is recognizing that your child is stressed!

For my own two boys, who typically are happy-go-lucky children, I can tell when they’re stressed. Their behavior changes and they become angry or sad. With my students, I’ve seen kids who are typically academic all-stars start to struggle with their schoolwork.

Once you recognize signs of stress in a child, you can use strategies, like the five I’ve listed below, to help your children manage their stress:

1. Take a brain break

Sometimes when a child is stressed out, all rational thought leaves the building. A brain break is a great distraction from the stressor – just long enough to help your child calm down and refocus. This might include listening to music, going for a walk, or exercising. (And this isn’t only for kids. I’ve done this many times to help deal with my stress.)

2. Teach the advantages of stress

Stress can be a good thing, in small amounts and with the right coping skills. For example, stress about a test may make your child study harder to earn a better grade. Positive stress helps people focus their energy and can be quite motivating, even enhancing performance. Talk with your kids. Make sure they understand that it’s okay for them to experience stress and that it can be beneficial, but more importantly, make sure they know you are there to help them if their stress gets too big.

3. Cut back on extracurricular activities

Think about it your child’s schedule. Are there activities that get over too late and limit her sleep? Is he so booked he doesn’t get any time to play? If so, consider cutting back on those activities. After all, it’s probably okay if your second grader doesn’t play the French horn and take Latin class, in addition to soccer and ballet.

4. Learn the tense-and-release method

Sometimes you just need 10 seconds. A simple, subtle way to help your child relax is to teach her to tense and release: tense her fingers and toes for 5 seconds and then relax for 5 seconds, all while breathing deeply. It works!

For most kids, simple strategies like this can help keep their stress in check. But make sure kids know not to be afraid to ask for help if the stress becomes too big or lasts too long.

5. Seek professional assistance

For most children, using these strategies will help them manage their stress in a meaningful way. But many children need more support to manage their stress or anxiety, especially children who tend to internalize and take the world’s problems on their shoulders. In those cases, be sure to reach out to a professional for assistance. Your child’s school counselor is a great place to start, and they can help direct you to another professional if needed.

Bryan Smith is the author of the children's book Stress Stinks

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