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Parent to Parent: Helping Kids Manage Back-to-School Stress

Published on: August 27, 2012

Stressed-out kid 

As our kids head back to school, many of us notice that their stress level seems to increase. That anxiety seems especially strong among middle school-age kids. Linda Morgan, editor of ParentMap and author of "Beyond Smart," explains how stress affects kids.

It’s common for anxious kids to have trouble sleeping. The worry, wake up at night and are typically tired during the day. Some kids have headaches, stomachaches or just general fatigue. Others have eating issues – their either eat too much or too little. And chronic stress can be damaging. This stress is associated with disease (such as high blood pressure), because the body stays constantly aroused as if there is danger.

How does school create stress for middle-schoolers
Middle school is a time when academics get more serious. And kids find they really have to be organized and develop strong study skills and strategies. That transition to middle school can be traumatic, because the student has to keep up in several different classes, each with different expectations. Courses are more difficult, there’s more homework, and expectations are higher.

And so many kids are overscheduled. They get stressed from because they’re doing too much with not enough time. School, homework, sports, music and dance lessons, volunteer activities – the list goes on.

How does the social scene affect them?
That pressure to fit in really peaks at this age. This age group wants to feel accepted by others and be included in a social group. Most tweens and young teens don’t have the tools to make great judgments at this point and they’re anxious about so many things. Are they dressing right? Who are they eating lunch with? Invited to parties?

What can parents do to help ease the stress?

Listen to your kids’ concerns and avoid anxiety-producing comments such as “teachers will expect more from you now.” Let them express their own opinions and concerns. Ask open-ended questions and be available to really talk to them.

Offer healthy food options (less sugar, salt and fatty foods; more vegetables, fruit and lean meat) and daily exercise at home. Many girls cut back on sports during this age, especially if they are not elite-level athletes. Encourage them to continue to be active. Suggest stress-reducing activities like yoga. Help your child relax by finding activities that calm her – walk, hike, read, listen to music, watch a funny movie or take a bubble bath.

How do you handle stress? Do you yell or lash out when you are upset? Your child is watching you and learning how adults handle stress. Our children take cues from us, so it’s important to have a healthy attitude towards transitions  — and let your kids see that you face challenges well.

If your tween or teen is nervous about the upcoming school year, provide reassurance that you will be there to help. Acknowledge your child’s fears and anxieties and brainstorm ways to get through them rather than dismissing feelings with statements like, “Everything will be all right.”

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