As children’s schedules fill up with activities and their backpacks fill up with homework, it’s normal to worry about the increasing amount of stress in their lives.
Some stress can have positive effects, according to Robin Zorn, school counselor at Mason Elementary in Duluth, Ga., and the American School Counselor Association’s 2014 School Counselor of the Year. “When children face stressful situations but are prepared and have worked hard, they can benefit by gaining self-confidence and learning useful coping techniques,” she explains.
But too much stress can hurt kids, contributing to behavioral changes and many physical and emotional problems. While stress can’t be eliminated completely from children’s lives, parents can play a key role in helping students understand where stress comes from, why it can be helpful, and how to handle it.
Stick to Routines
One of the biggest stressors across the board for all children is an unstable or unpredictable environment at school and at home.
“Kids do well when there’s a set routine and predictability,” says Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, a former school psychologist and current director of government relations at the National Association of School Psychologists. “Keep to a routine or schedule as much as possible. And when schedules have to change, give kids an early heads up that schedules are changing.”
Routines can also help reduce stress resulting from bad habits, like procrastinating on large projects. “Kids need guidance on how to break up subjects when a project or test is coming up,” Zorn explains. “They can’t start a three-week project the night before. If they have a huge research project to complete, they need to learn the steps of finding the books, reading the chapters, writing the rough draft, putting it together, and presenting the finished product so they aren’t panicked trying to do it all the night before it’s due.”
Having a regular schedule is important, but it’s just as important not to overschedule activities.
“There’s no hard-and-fast way to know if you’re overscheduled, but when your kids are so scheduled you can’t fit in homework or have unstructured downtime to do a hobby or read a book, that’s a problem,” Vaillancourt Strobach says.
She recommends that children should have no more than one to two extracurricular activities a week. She also suggests giving kids a say in what activities they do and don’t want to do. And if your child is struggling to keep up with both school and the activity, it may be time to stop.
“Parents don’t want to let their child quit in the middle of the season, but if the kid is stressed, it might be better to let it go,” Vaillancourt Strobach advises.
Eat for Success
Healthy eating is a big part of managing stress. “Kids who aren’t eating right aren’t going to learn as well,” Vaillancourt Strobach says. “This causes more stress because they fall behind in school. This is a chain reaction contributing to other areas that are also stressful.”
Make sure children are drinking plenty of water; staying hydrated has been proved to reduce feelings of stress. The recommended water intake varies by age and gender, but school-age children should drink at least 5 cups a day.
Manage Test Time
Academic pressures are present even in elementary school, and standardized testing is a big source of stress. “Kids get worried about their performance, especially when they know it’s a test that counts,” Zorn says.
She suggests that parents and teachers work to help children feel prepared for tests and have kids focus on doing their best, not trying to be perfect. Before the exam, kids should be encouraged to take deep breaths and try focusing on a positive thought like “I can calm down.” Afterward, it’s just as important to talk to children and help them realize they faced their anxiety or nervous feelings and handled the test.
A child who shows significant behavioral changes, especially in sleeping or eating habits, may be experiencing too much stress. “If your good eater changes to eating nothing or your light eater is suddenly eating all of the time, you need to have a conversation,” Vaillancourt Strobach says.
Other warning signs include a child resuming behavior he had outgrown or showing separation anxiety or clinginess.
When kids struggle with stress, there are many steps parents can take to help them cope better. Families can find support at school, too. School psychologists can be a great asset to parents as they try to help a stressed child find healthy ways to manage her feelings.
1. Take a walk. Physical activity releases chemicals in the brain that help people feel better. Great conversations can happen when it’s you and your kids walking together.
2. Sit down and share a healthy meal together with no distractions. Turn off the television and cell phones. Talk about the day’s events without judgment.
3. Arts and crafts projects are a great way to relieve stress. Try coloring, using modeling compound or clay, painting, or knitting.
4. Listen to music or watch a family show together.
5. Take a brain break and try deep breathing, stretching, or yoga.