Handling Back-to-School Stress

After a year that has been understandably difficult for all of us - and after over a year of virtual education - many kids are starting to return to school. This back-to-school season is stressful for parents, but it’s stressful for kids, too -- even young ones. The first day of school can be difficult for some children even during the best of times, and it’s likely that this year will be even harder.

Here’s how to recognize signs of stress in primary-aged children, and how to soothe them (and how to help them soothe themselves).

Why is this important?

  • Unmanaged stress can weaken your child’s developing brain. 
  • Stress in young people can change brain chemistry and architecture in young brains.
  • Toxic stress during childhood can lead to lifelong learning difficulties and problems with physical and mental health.

How to help 4 to 10-year-olds cope with stress:

  • First, have the understanding that children can and do experience stress. Too often, we mistake childhood as a happy-go-lucky, stress-free time. But psychological research has proven that kids do feel emotional stress, and need help dealing with it.
  • Some signs of stress to watch out for as your young one goes back to school include regressive behavior (going back to old habits like sucking their thumb, for example), unexplained symptoms like stomach aches and headaches, changes in sleep, loss of appetite, and acting out (for example, by having tantrums).
  • Some children also experience separation anxiety as they return to school. Signs of this might be crying during drop-off or expressing worries that something bad will happen to you while they are at school.
  • Spending quality time with your child is one of the best things you can do to help them reduce stress levels. After you pick your child up from school, set aside some time to spend with them. Ask them about their day, and really listen to their answers. Show them that you’re listening through body language and by asking follow-up questions.
  • If your child has separation anxiety, talk to their new teacher or the school counselor. These on-campus adults can often help you come up with a morning drop-off strategy. The longer you avoid the anxiety trigger (separating from you), the worse the anxiety is likely to become.
  • Some children become stressed at school because their schedules are too full. Sports and other extracurricular activities can give your child great opportunities. But does your child have time to play freely? Do they have leisure time? If you notice signs of stress in your child, it may be a good time to think about whether you may be trying to pack too much into their schedule.
  • Routines can help and comfort children when they’re under stress. Although the back-to-school season can disrupt some rituals, make sure there are some household routines that your child can count on. Having a meal as a family every day, or scheduling a set play-together time, are both great ideas.
  • If your child shares with you that they’re feeling stressed, be thoughtful about how you respond. Never brush your child’s feelings off as “not a big deal”. Listen to your child without trying to solve the problem right away. Reflect what they’re saying to you, and help them name their emotions.

 

Click here to download this tip sheet in PDF format.

References

American Psychological Association (2019). Identifying signs of stress in your children and teens. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/children

KidsHealth (n.d.). Childhood Stress. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/stress.html.

McEwen B. S. (2011). Effects of stress on the developing brain. Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science, 2011, 14. 

MedlinePlus (n.d.). Stress in Childhood. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002059.htm

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