five steps for Handling Back To School Stress

Back to school time can be a very exciting time - new teacher, new class, new folders and notebooks, maybe even a new backpack and clothes! But for some kids and young adults, all the same things that can be exciting are actually quite stress inducing. With the new and different comes the unknown, and with the unknown can often come anxiety. 

Beyond the new and unknown, stress can also lurk in the old and same. For some kids, returning to school means returning to the same teasing or bullying. For kids that are more introverted it means returning to group work and class presentations. For kids with ADHD it means retuning to being asked to sit still most of the day and pay attention. 

No matter the source of stress, for many kids it is surely there. 1 in 5 kids meets the diagnostic criteria for a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder. And beyond falling in the range of diagnosis, are the kids who might not quite meet the diagnostic criteria but are still struggling and could use some support. So how do we help? 

Step one for parents is to make sure you are taking care of you! This might seem counterintuitive but as they saying goes, "you can't pour from an empty cup." To put it plainly, you're not going to be very helpful to a kid who is struggling if you are also struggling because you're putting yourself last on the list of things that need taking care of. Stressed parents = stressed kids. You might think they don't notice, but trust me, they do. Not only do they notice but they're feeding off that stress and reacting to it and in some cases they're internalizing it and making it their own problem. I have had kids tell me that they were too afraid to tell their parents about what was going on with them because they thought their parent was either going to be mad and yell or it would be just another thing they had to worry about. So really, take care of you first. 

Step two is to listen and listen well. This doesn't mean scroll through your phone and occasionally look up and nod, this means set aside some time to really talk about their day, their friends, the good and the not so good. But my kid won't tell me about their day! Congratulations, you likely have a very normal child. This is where you have to learn to listen by watching. Maybe they say their day was "good" or "fine" and that's all they'll give you. That's ok, but what else are they doing? Are they crying when they sit down to do math? Are they throwing their books in frustration? Are they getting stomach aches way too often? Are they getting mean and defensive when you try to help with something? These are signs that something could be going on. I also encourage parents to start asking different types of questions. Did you have a good day? That's a closed questions. The answers are basically yes or no. If you want a better answer try: how was your day? But they just say "fine" you cry out! Try asking what made their day fine and not great, or what one good thing was and one not so good thing. More creative questions lead to more in depth answers (well, sometimes). 

Step three is to get all the information. This might mean bringing it up to your child- "Hey, I noticed every time we do math there is crying or yelling, what's going on?" Maybe they'll open up and share that this is a tough subject for them and they're feeling behind compared to their classmates or they're feeling "stupid" because they just can't get it, no matter how hard they try! They're less likely to open up if they're being yelled at for getting upset or told to hurry up or pull it together. But maybe something is going on that they can't identify. Maybe you ask them what is up with the stomach aches every Wednesday and they say they don't know. They might not want to share but they also really might not know! Maybe Wednesday is gym day and they hate gym or maybe it's a quiz day, or maybe something else is going on. Here is where talking with the teachers or other school staff can help clue you in to what might be going on if your child can't tell you. 

Step four is to get some help! Maybe it's a math tutor if they're struggling or behind and just need some extra time and attention with the subject.  Or maybe it's getting them some accommodations at school. Could they maybe get a little longer for the quiz if feeling rushed is part of the problem? Do they maybe need to get a break with the school social worker to reset at lunch? Sometimes schools can be flexible and get kids what they need to feel more comfortable and learn better. Some schools however, may be very inflexible due to budget or other staff cuts. If your child already has a diagnosis they may likely qualify for a 504 plan that helps get in writing the accommodations the school is obligated to provide. If the 504 plan isn't enough and your child's needs aren't being met, an IEP or Individualized Education Plan is also an option.

Step five is to relax! This might sound silly but this is probably the most important step. Practicing unwinding and helping our kids learn how to unwind is an invaluable skill. The grades our children get and their academic success will never be as important as their mental health is. I have watched many kids try so hard to hold it all together throughout the school day only to get home and need to explode. School lasts only a little while, but self-esteem issues, anxiety and stress related illness can last a lifetime. Helping ourselves, and our kids, remember that the most important thing they can do is their best and placing more importance on character development, relationships and health helps kids tackle the tough stuff. It also helps open up lines of communication, and with parenting - communication is key! 


Struggling with some tough back to school stuff? Reach out! I would be happy to provide a consultation with some ideas to get you started or set up an appointment for some more in depth work!