From tests and homework assignments to extracurricular activities and social media pressures, today’s children are stressed out more than ever before. For kids, as well as parents, back-to-school season can oftentimes signal a return to overwhelming stress, but it doesn’t have to with the right approach. Ronald V. Marino, DO, an osteopathic pediatrician from Mineola, New York, provides essential tips to help erase stress from your family’s back-to-school routine.
Tackling Stress through Open Communication
Preparing for the school year and getting through it can be a daunting task for both parents and children. Younger children typically have fears about separating from parents, going to a new class, making friends, passing tests and completing assignments on time. As children get older, the stress often builds as they begin to focus on maintaining a good grade point average and getting into a top college.
According to Dr. Marino, even as early as elementary school kids are stressed out about how to excel and set themselves apart through academics or extracurricular activities. With high-stakes tests and the fear of failure, pressure can quickly mount and begin to take a toll. How can parents help their kids cope with the tremendous amount of pressure?
“It is essential to have an open relationship and regular communication with your children,” says Dr. Marino. “Don’t pressure them, but make them aware that you are available to talk. Strive to create a sense of connection and safety, so they know they are not alone.”
To help engage your children, Dr. Marino recommends the following approach:
Encourage them to talk freely to you about their concerns and worries about returning to and excelling in school.
Maintain a calm and confident tone and avoid negative feedback or adding on to their problems with your own.
Practice active listening. Listen to their concerns, don’t dismiss them. Keep alert for troubled expressions of despair and frustration. However casual they may sound, take their remarks seriously and discuss them before their feelings build.
Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Sometimes kids are not vocal about their anxieties so monitor them for signs of irritability, such as moodiness, appetite changes or trouble sleeping, and watch for stress-related behaviors like cutting.
Communicating with your children on a regular basis can go a long way in easing their stress. Check in with your children on a regular basis. Ask them about their day while driving them home. Discuss homework and due dates and listen attentively to their concerns.
“As a parent, your presence is helpful for a stressed out child,” says Dr. Marino. “For the child, knowing that you are there providing support is very comforting.”
Setting the Right Tone for the School Year
A new wake-up schedule, homework and practices can often cause anxiety for children. To better prepare children for these changes, Dr. Marino encourages parents to set up a regular sleep schedule that mimics the one followed during the school year. Establishing a school-appropriate bedtime and getting them in a sleep routine before school starts will gradually ease them into their new routine. Also, electronic media should be excluded in the bedroom or turned off 60 minutes prior to sleep. With the end of summer, going back to school shouldn’t be seen as a somber time. Parents can direct the tone.
“Make the back-to-school routine fun. Excitement is contagious and it can set the tone for any event,” Dr. Marino suggests. “If you’re excited, your kids will follow your lead.”
Reducing Stress as a Family
Managing stress is an ongoing process. To help children reduce their stress levels during the school year, Dr. Marino recommends parents:
Provide children with unconditional positive regard and praise to help build their self-esteem.
Un-schedule time in the day for children to unwind. Provide outlets for stress such as exercise, rest and down time. Extracurricular activities are important, but so is free time to de-stress. In between dance, cheerleading, sports or club activities should be time set aside to relax every week. Encourage outdoor activities such as walking or bike riding; getting out to nature is an antidote to stress.
Create a media-free space in your home for quiet reflection.
Invest in a stress-relieving activity for you and your children. Consider stress easing activities such as singing, playing music, meditation, massage or yoga.
Above all, Dr. Marino advises parents to model a low-stress lifestyle. “Change is inevitable and there is no reason to fear it. Encourage your children to adapt to change and be an example to them; the way you deal with stress will set the model for how they deal with it as well,” he adds.