Now that first-day jitters are over and school is well underway, students can start to feel stressed out by school. Research indicates that fear about academic performance is now the primary source of school stress. Grades, standardized tests and competition for getting into college have laid a heavy burden on young people who live with busy schedules, both in and out of school. Standardized test-taking has made even 3rd graders feel the overt and unspoken pressure to score well.
Parents should be aware of some of the major signs that their children might be under unhealthy stress.
The signs can look different in middle and high schools students than they do in elementary-aged students.
Signs of stress can be harder to read in younger children. They are often more somatic in nature including trouble sleeping, headaches, and stomach aches, and often combined with a reluctance to go to school. With pre teens and teens, parents should assess for signs stress-related behaviors like mood swings, noticeable changes in emotional states, withdrawal from friends and activities, criticizing themselves, purposely cutting themselves, or expressing despair or hopelessness, even when those remarks sound casual or off-hand.
So what can parents do to minimize the effects of school stress on their children?
First, families can look at their children’s weekly schedules to see if there is a way to create more “down time.” If schedules are packed, are there ways to eliminate a few things and make sure they students know that relaxing is a normal and necessary part of life?
If your child is spending an inordinate amount of time doing homework, make sure that time management is not an issue. Help them create an organizational and time management system that can make them feel more effective and successful in getting their work done. Also, talk to your child’s teachers and/or school to see if homework requirements are excessive or whether they have recommendations about how to help your child manage school work better.
Second, communicate with your child to let them know you are concerned and invite them to talk about what is stressing them out. While we would all love to have a perfect conversation, complete with eye contact, with our pre teens and teens about how they feel, we know that it is often challenging to get our kids to talk to us (and listen to us).
Since your child may already be feeling overwhelmed, try to find moments to bring up the issue that do not put them in the spotlight. Instead of talking directly at the dinner table, try bringing up the topic casually in the car or when you are out doing everyday errands. Don’t require eye contact, but be available and present when they want it. You can also observe their nonverbal communication to see if what they say matches what you see or intuit. Be prepared if your child does not want to talk, but also remember that just because they don’t respond to you verbally, does not mean they are not listening or that you did not get your concerns across to them.
Third, if your child really cannot or does not want to talk, ask them if they would feel comfortable talking to someone else. Ask them if they can identify one or two adults who you would trust, such as a teacher, school counselor, coach, or church member. While we cannot exactly explain it, sometimes things are heard better when delivered by a supportive and familiar party other than parents.
You can also consult independently with that person (with or without agreement of your child). You may also find that your message of support and guidance can be delivered effectively through them as well.
Fourth, if you feel that your child is overwhelmed or in danger, or you need support, seek professional help from a therapist or counselor. Among many other service providers out there, Pacifica Youth Service Bureaus (PYSB) is always here if you need a professional assessment of your child’s mental health and safety status as well as individual and family counseling for students and their families.
PYSB location and clinic hours:
435 Edgemar Drive
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 3 – 8 p.m., by appointment only.
To make an appointment, call our Intake Line at 650-355-3900, ext. 226.