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Pam Weinberger, Guelph ON
Fall has arrived and kids have headed back to school. This time of year can bring a range of emotions for kids and families. When our children venture back into the classroom, there is often excitement about reconnecting with peers. It is also often mixed with trepidation and fear of the unknown. As the days settle into a routine, you may find the initial excitement of back to school shifting to stress and anxiety. Families are busy and kids can struggle managing the pressures of school and social demands. Unfortunately, often our young people have not developed coping skills to help them manage this stress. When this is the case, they can turn to harmful alternatives to reduce their distress.
Expect that as life picks up from the more leisurely pace of summer life, so too will the stress level in your family. A little stress and anxiety is not a bad thing. It is a normal part of life and can serve to motivate us to do our best. However, when stress starts to take over and interfere with your child’s ability to enjoy life, it becomes problematic. You can help alleviate some of this stress for your child with a few proactive strategies.
No one feels good when they are rushed or disorganized. Spending a few minutes the night before to ensure your child is organized for the next morning can go a long way towards ensuring they start their day off on the right foot. Help your child develop an after school schedule that accommodates the responsibilities they have each day. Be sure to include some unscheduled downtime for them to relax and connect with friends. Evenings can be busy with meal times and extra-curricular activities. Try to find at least a few minutes of family time each day where you can connect and check in with your child.
Anticipate that your child will likely feel more exhausted and less resilient when they get home from a busy day of holding it all together at school. Children often have an after-school “restraint collapse”. This means all of the stress they’ve bottled up all day is released once they are back home in their safe space. Understand that this is normal. Help them ride the wave of anxiety and exhaustion by letting them know you are there for them. It may also be helpful to brainstorm with your child ways they can ease some of this pressure throughout the day without bottling it up inside. Perhaps taking a few minutes to breathe between classes, run around at recess or talking to their teacher regarding concerns they may have.
It’s important to create a rapport where your child knows that when life is overwhelming, they can turn to you. One of the best ways we can do this is by listening to the verbal and non-verbal cues our children communicate. Your child, particularly at younger ages, will not likely have the skills and awareness to articulate that they are feeling stressed. Instead, it often appears in behavioural ways. This can include moodiness, defiance, withdrawal or physical ailments such as stomachaches and headaches. You can help your child build awareness of what is happening for them by noticing out loud and helping them label what they are feeling. Saying something like, “I notice that when getting home from school you often…” or “Sounds like you’re really worried about the math test.”
When your child does discuss how they are feeling about things, resist the urge to fix things for them. As parents, it is painful to watch our children struggle. Because we want to help them feel better, we often jump in to problem-solving mode by providing them suggestions; (“You should…”; “Next time that happens…”) or reassuring our children (“It will be okay”; “You are very smart”). Sometimes we minimize the size of the problem (“At least…”; “It’s not the end of the world”). By doing this, we run the risk of discounting how they are feeling. This can take away their opportunity to find their own solutions and gain perspective themselves.
Instead of problem-solving, try approaching conversations with empathy and curiousity. When your child tells you how worried they are about an upcoming project at school or friendship issue, let them know you hear them. Saying things like “That sounds really hard” or “It makes sense to me that you are so upset about that because I know X is a really important friend to you” helps children feel heard. Asking questions like “How does that friendship make you feel?” or “What would happen if…” can encourage your child to find their own solutions or gain awareness of their feelings.
There are many things we can do to reduce the impact of stress on our lives. It is well recognized that physical activity and movement helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It is essential that this time is not just spent in structured activities and sports, but that children also have time for unstructured and creative play. Unstructured time provides kids with a sense of freedom and control. It also helps them develop problem-solving skills. Teaching your child breathing exercises, like deep belly breathing, or using guided meditations can also help them wind down and calm their anxious minds, particularly at bedtime. There are plenty of apps and websites with free resources for parents.
If you are finding that your child’s stress and anxiety level are interfering with their ability to enjoy their life, reach out. Perhaps speak with your child’s teacher to let them know what is going on for your little one. Often children do an amazing job of masking how they are truly feeling while at school. Your child’s teacher may have no idea what is percolating beneath the surface. Once your child’s teacher understands what is happening, they may be able to make small changes at school to help support your child (i.e., breaking assignments into manageable chunks, checking in with your child). It may also be helpful for your child to speak with a professional counsellor to provide them with a space to share their concerns and develop some strategies for managing their big feelings.
For more strategies to help alleviate family stress, click here.
Pam Weinberger is mother of two and a counsellor in private practice in Guelph, ON. After teaching for more than a decade, Pam noted a dramatic increase in the number of young people she taught that struggled with anxiety and depression. This awareness motivated her to move into counselling where she supports children, adults, and seniors in their struggles with life stress, anxiety, depression and relationship issues.