School Behavior

Stress: Keeping Your Cool at School

How to help stressed-out students.

student tween teens stress
adhd teen boy in school library

Between work schedules, finances and family obligations, it seems stress can be found everywhere these days. But some busy parents will be surprised to learn it can also be found in their children. An expert at the University of Arkansas cautions parents against overlooking the warning signs and offers advice on how to handle a stressed-out kid.

“One of the first mistakes parents make is assuming that kids aren’t susceptible to stress,” said Rebecca Newgent, a researcher in the department of educational leadership, counseling and foundations. “They figure kids don’t have to work; they don’t have to pay bills; they have it easy. But actually, there are potential stressors at every age.”

For example, grades, popularity and physical appearance can be stressful issues in a young person’s life, as can family troubles like divorce or financial instability. But whether trivial or serious by adult standards, these issues all loom large in children’s eyes, and Newgent advises parents not to dismiss an issue that seems to genuinely trouble their child.

According to Newgent, the first step in helping a child deal with stress is recognizing the symptoms. Knowing how stress manifests is especially important for parents of younger children, she said, because younger children may not know the cause of their symptoms, or they may lack the vocabulary to express what they’re feeling.

Newgent explained that children exhibit stress in three ways: physically, behaviorally and psychologically. Physical symptoms may include frequent stomach aches, headaches, acne break-outs and even high blood pressure. Behaviorally, kids under stress often become more irritable or withdrawn. They may begin acting out at school or start neglecting their studies. If stress goes unchecked, children may start to show psychological symptoms such as forgetfulness or lack of concentration. Stress can even progress to more serious conditions such as chronic anxiety or depression, Newgent said.

If parents do see signs of stress in their child, Newgent recommends talking to the child – first trying to identify the child’s feelings then, if possible, digging deeper to discern the cause of those feelings. Like adults, children can experience different types of stress, she explained.

For example, preparing for college or going to camp for the first time might be a source of “positive” stress – where some of the feelings are unpleasant, but the eventual outcome is rewarding. In such a case, parents should acknowledge the source of stress while encouraging their kids to persevere through difficulties in order to reach their goals.

On the other hand, incidents such as bullying or perpetually poor grades represent forms of “negative” stress, Newgent said. Under these circumstances, parents should focus not just on alleviating stress but on working with their child to eliminate the cause.

School counselors, psychologists and even medication are available if children become overwhelmed by stress, but before parents resort to drastic measures, Newgent suggests they try two simple approaches. First, encourage the child to do something healthy.

“Exercise, go out into the fresh air, watch a silly movie – encourage them to find a mental or physical release that gives them a break from theirstress,” Newgent said. “Amongst the withdrawal and the anxiety and all the negative side-effects, it’s important to put some positive feelings intotheir lives.”

It’s long been known that physical exertion produces endorphins that can relieve symptoms of stress and depression, but any sort of leisure activity can be beneficial. Such an approach may seem like an attempt to distract children from their worries, but Newgent argues that it helps children establish a pattern of positive activity and teaches them to cope with stress through healthy habits.

Newgent’s second recommendation is as much a prevention as a treatment. She urges parents to act as good role models for their kids – to deal with their own stress in reasonable and healthy ways. Just as parental worries can be felt and adopted by children, so can parental coping mechanisms, and parents who lash out or withdraw under pressure will have children who mimic that reaction, she said.

In addition, parents who react poorly to stress create an environment where children may try to hide their emotions to avoid upsetting their parents. Such circumstances – where parents are wrapped up in their own problems and children bury their feelings – invariably perpetuate stress, anxiety and depression in kids.

A more appropriate approach is for parents to deal with their stress individually but not to hide it from the family or pretend it doesn’t exist.”Children are perceptive. If there’s stress in the house, they’ll sense it and begin to feel it themselves,” Newgent said.

In cases of long-term stress, Newgent recommends that parents acknowledge their feelings to their kids, but she cautions against revealing too much. Parents who discuss financial problems or family issues in great detail risk raising feelings of anxiety or personal responsibility in their children.

“Set appropriate boundaries about how you discuss family situations with your kids,” she said. “When you do talk to them, assure them thatyou’re working to fix the problem or make things better and that there’s nothing they need to worry about. Be very reassuring.”