“I don’t want to go to school.”
Every parent has heard this statement at some point – but why? While we often talk about the stress adults feel as they struggle to balance family, work, social obligations and other commitments, we may not always realize the degree to which kids feel stress in their lives. What kinds of stressors do they encounter during their typical day at school – and how can we help them?
What causes stress in school age children?
Adults know how anxious they can feel walking into a new job on the first day. Kids have this experience every year as they enter a new classroom with new teachers, classmates and possibly even a new building.
Even as early as elementary school, students are aware of what’s happening in each other’s lives – often due to social media – and the pressure to keep up and fit in can cause stress for many children.
Academic and test anxiety
The pressure to perform well academically can weigh heavily on kids. According to Jennifer Miller, a teacher for Cincinnati Public Schools, “The biggest source of anxiety I see is caused by academics, and specifically state testing. Over the years, I’ve seen kids get physically sick with stomachaches, headaches, etc. I’ve seen students who suddenly develop sleep problems, and some who have reverted back to bedwetting.”
A student who feels intimidated or scared by classmates, whether in person or online, goes to school every day in a hostile environment. Not knowing what may happen next, and feeling unable to change it, can be a major source of anxiety.
Meeting parental expectations
Kids can feel anxious about disappointing their parents if they aren’t meeting standards they feel have been set for them. Setting expectations can cross over from motivating a child to achieve to causing worry and fear that they won’t meet certain goals.
If anything is causing stress at home, those feelings will follow the child to school. A major life change such as divorce, death, illness, a move to a new home or birth of a new baby can all be changes that a young child is not well-equipped to handle.
How can parents help?
When you first notice a problem, start a conversation to find out what’s bothering your child. Brittany Noble, a Cincinnati Public Schools teacher, says, “A lot of times asking ‘why?’ doesn’t get you the answers because the child may not know ‘why,’ but asking ‘what happened’ lets them tell you what has gone on and as the adult, we can sometimes figure out the triggers after going through the explanation.”
Once you’ve asked a question, really listen to the answer. Give your child your full attention. The stress he or she is feeling may be difficult to discuss, so be patient and make sure to create a safe environment to talk about their concerns.
Look for positives
It’s important to let children know that stress is something everyone feels from time to time and can actually be a positive thing if it motivates you to prepare for a test or practice a presentation, for example. Miller suggests that parents “help children keep a positive frame of mind by assuring that they will be fine if they do their best.”
Follow through and follow up
Tell your child how you are going to help him. If you’ve said you will call the teacher, be sure to call. If you decide to reach out to your pediatrician, schedule the appointment. And then follow up with your child. Let him know what you are actively doing to help and that you are taking his stress seriously. As Noble says, “The follow up is almost as important as the initial conversation. Whatever parents do, do not tell the child to ‘get over it.’”
Learn some coping skills
“Anxiety becomes a problem when it hinders us from doing our best or makes us physically ill,” says Robin Schaefer, a school counselor in Boone County Schools. “Practice coping skills and challenge your child to try out a variety to see which ones work best.” Find out what works for your child when it comes to relieving stress. Does he or she need to get outside and do something physical? Would keeping a journal help? Can you teach some deep breathing exercises to use in the next stressful situation? Above all, help your child keep the “big picture” in mind and realize that difficult situations will pass.
Every child, like every adult, handles stress in their own unique way. By being on the lookout for ways in which your child may be manifesting stress and having strategies in place to help them, we can teach our kids how to handle stress appropriately now – and in their future.