Managing Back-To-School Stress

Distraught teen girl, with eyes closed and hand to head

August 28, 2017

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Posted in: Grade School, Teenagers

Hans Selye, a Hungarian scientist who was a pioneer in modern stress research, was quoted as saying:

It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.

Today, 75 years after he made that statement, it rings as true as ever. And, nowhere is it more challenging to find an effective response to stress than among our kids.

An annual survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2013 identified today’s teens as the “most-stressed generation” in the United States. The survey found that teenager’s average reported stress levels topped that of adults’ (5.8 for teens vs. 5.1 for adults, on a scale of 1 to 10), and nearly half of the teens surveyed said they had stress that they were not able to manage. Another recent survey of seventh graders found that only 36% of students agreed with the statement, “I am happy with my life.”

Heading into the school year can be a particularly stressful time for kids – in the APA survey, teens reported their stress level during the school year far exceeded what they thought was healthy. But it is also a great time to start implementing long-term strategies to improve our and our kids’ ability to cope with stress.

Here are a few simple but important ways you can help your children and yourself have a successful and less-stressed start to the school year:

  1. Start the school sleep schedule early. A good night’s sleep is one of the most important stress reducers, as sleep helps to manage hormone levels, maintain a healthy body weight and repair and grow muscle tissue. Start the school sleep routine a week or two before the first day of school to help ease the transition from late summer nights. Getting into a good sleep routine will work best if you create a consistent bed time, keep away from the screen for at least 2 hours before that time and engage in some type of winding-down exercises before bed, such as prayer and other forms of meditation, gentle stretching, playing soothing music, or taking a bath.
  2. Be as prepared as possible. If you have school-aged children, visiting the school can help them feel more comfortable and excited about returning. Find out who their classmates are, and, if possible, ensure that they have at least one friend in their classroom. Shopping for school supplies and other necessary items can be a fun transition ritual that has the important benefit of bringing a sense of control to a new situation. Along these lines, you can extend the preparation ritual by setting up a study area for your child. A quiet, organized space that is designated for schoolwork will encourage commitment and follow-through to the homework routine.
  3. Talk about it, and stay positive. Another great way to prepare for the coming year is to simply talk to your children about their feelings. Find out what’s making them anxious; validate those feelings and work together to come up with potential solutions.If possible, carve out some quality time before school starts to reminisce about the joys of summer, and to address any worries about the new school year.You might create a night-before-school special meal; showing enthusiasm yourself is sure to spread to your kids, turning their nervous energy into excitement. This may be especially important to do on Sunday evenings, which is when kids most often become stressed about school the next day. As a parent, you send your children an important message by assuring them that they can get through a transition—even if it’s hard.
  4. Help your children set realistic priorities for school and outside activities. Talk to them about finding a balance among discipline, self-challenge and enjoyment. Maybe they don’t need to play three sports this year, or maybe they need encouragement to try something new. Establishing a successful schedule will go a long way in reducing stress. Part of this schedule should include down time, where nothing is scheduled and you have the opportunity to connect with your child. That relaxed connection can be a tremendous stress relief.
  5. Finally, be a role model. In this stress-filled world, it’s valuable for us to show our children how to counteract stress. Let them see you take a few minutes to sit still while you concentrate on your breathing. Tell them about your own commitment to create a less stressful year.

In many ways, school is the testing ground for a lifetime of challenges and opportunities that your child will face throughout his or her life. Providing children with a toolbox of ways to reduce their worry early in life can go a long way in promoting a lifetime of well-being.

– A version of this blog was originally posted on 30 August 2016

Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine

Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine

The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital teaches patients ways to counteract stress and build resiliency by eliciting the Relaxation Response. BHI is click here.

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