Note: This blog is not medical advice and is for informational purposes only. For any specific recommendations, please refer to your child’s pediatrician or behavioral health professional.
School can be a huge source of joy (friends, field trips, recess, learning!)—but it can also be a huge source of stress. And since stress is an inevitable part of life at every stage, the best thing we can do is help our kids learn to respond to it in healthy ways.
To better understand how to support our kids as we approach another school year, we spoke with Dr. Cheng Qian, Stanford- and Harvard-educated child psychologist. Dr. Qian runs the Instagram account @parentingtheunexpected, where she posts easily digestible infographics to help parents navigate the general ups & downs of raising children.
Common School-Related Stressors
Sources of stress will vary based on age group and individual personalities. For example: a naturally outgoing, sociable child may not find giving a presentation to be nerve-racking, while a soft-spoken, introverted child may find it incredibly so. That said, here are some potential pressures children may face while at school:
First starting school:
- Being separated from their parent(s)/caregiver(s) for a long period of time
- Meeting/getting to know new teachers/classmates
- Learning expectations/nuances (e.g. how to sit/behave while at school, etc.)
- Learning to read/developing new skill sets
- Facing expectations for academics
- Completing quizzes/tests/assignments
- Social situations with peers and/or teachers
Another thing to consider is that life outside of school impacts our kids’ experiences at school—and vice-versa. “If we're having a lot of stress at home or in other areas of our life,” says Dr. Qian, “we're not going to be able to tolerate stress as well at school. And similarly, if there's a lot of stress from school, it's also going to bleed into home [life].”
Signs That Your Child Might Be Struggling at School
It would be great if our kids would come right out and tell us they’re overwhelmed. But often, they don’t know how to tell us or maybe don’t even understand what they’re feeling just yet. As parents or caregivers, we can be on the lookout for signs that something’s taking a toll.
Older kids may give us cues with words. “If we’re noticing a lot of language around, ‘oh, this makes me nervous,’ or ‘what would people think?’” says Dr. Qian, “there’s probably a lot of worry going on inside.” But it’s the nonverbal cues, she says, that are often the biggest indicators in any age group. Be on the lookout for any changes in day-to-day life, which may include:
- Trouble falling asleep
- Getting fearful around going to school
- Complaining about stomach aches or headaches (when we’re certain there’s no medical issue)
- Acute changes to daily mood/behavior
How to Talk to Your Kids About Stress
Okay, so you suspect something’s off with your child. What now?
First, “don't jump into problem solving,” says Dr. Qian. We know, we know—it’s tempting to just want to try and fix things when our kids are struggling. Instead, focus on understanding how they’re feeling, helping them understand how they’re feeling, and helping them build a toolkit to manage those feelings.
Even before we notice something is bothering our kids, we can start by modeling behavior/language—expressing our own emotions in a healthy way. “If you expect your child to talk to you about what they’re worried about, you model it first,” says Dr. Qian. “Talking about our emotions is not always a skill we know how to do—unless someone has taught us.” This might look like: “I was worried today when I was giving a presentation at work. Have you ever experienced something like this?”
One approach we can take with our kids is to make gentle observations. You might say something like, “Oh, I’m noticing your voice is getting louder whenever we talk about school,” or “I’m noticing when we’re talking about homework, it sounds like xyz…”
Keep in mind that it’s not our job to eliminate stress from our kids’ lives altogether—that’d be impossible! “Part of life is having stressful experiences and having worries,” says Dr. Qian. “It helps our kids become more resilient, and they can continue building up skills through this process.”
What we can do, though, is help our kids build tools to better handle the stress that does come up. Dr. Qian tells us to imagine yourself as a cup. As you face pressures, your cup fills up. The more you’re dealing with—whether that be at home or at school—the less you’re able to take on without “overfilling.” As parents, we can help our kids learn to empty their cup, so that when a challenge arises, they’re more equipped to handle it.
Acute Stress Management: Ways to Self-Soothe in the Moment
The first tool in our toolkit is learning how to deal with tension head-on. Your child is gearing up for a presentation or nervous about talking to their new classmates. What can they do to self-soothe right then and there?
Dr. Qian suggests helping your child create what she calls a “coping box.” Fill this with little, discreet tools that your child can use without drawing a lot of attention to themselves. Teach them to turn to these tools when they can’t catch their breath or their mind is racing. Some examples include:
- Affirmation sticky notes—you can help them write these!
- A physical reminder to take a deep breath. Using a calming scent like lavender is a nice way to encourage it. Look for a roll-on oil designed for kids for on-the-go aromatherapy.
Long-Term Stress Management: How to Empty Your “Cup”
When it comes to building our stress management toolkit, it’s the long-term strategies that can make the biggest impact. These may include:
- Helping build healthy habits to support overall wellness (good sleep, nutrition, and physical activity, for example)
- Making sure they have avenues outside of school to empty their “cup” (release stress/boost their mood). These might include playdates, dance class, or trips to the library—anything that brings them joy.
- Helping foster good emotional literacy (more on this below)
Fostering emotional literacy is where parents/caregivers can really step in to help. Work with your kids to be able to identify and label their emotions. “How does my body tell me that I’m feeling scared—and that school is making me scared?”
And teach them that it’s okay to ask for help and talk about our feelings. When they notice a feeling within themselves, help them feel comfortable turning to you or a teacher or a friend and asking for what they need. Maybe that’s someone to sit with them in the worry moments, or maybe that’s talking it out.
Lastly, acknowledge the good! This looks like, “Hey, I noticed you were able to take a deep breath right there. Let's celebrate that.” This shift in the narrative can help empower your kids and let them focus on how they’re overcoming their stressors—rather than focusing on the stressors themselves.
When It Becomes “Too Much”
We all experience stress to some extent—but at what point does it become too much?
“Whenever you feel like it’s changing your everyday life,” says Dr. Qian. If “your child’s worries [are] getting in the way of being able to do the things they should do or used to love doing, that’s time to seek some professional help.” She notes a couple examples: maybe your child is afraid of going out to recess or throwing a tantrum before school every morning.
Speaking with your child’s pediatrician would be a good place to start, she notes. Centers with primary care psychologists or hospitals that offer consult sessions can also be good resources.
Dr. Qian points out that part of being a parent is learning alongside your child. Coping with stress, talking about emotions, managing our “cups”—it’s all a lifelong learning experience. Practicing these skills helps, as seeking guidance from trusted sources. In addition to Dr. Qian’s Instagram (@parentingtheunexpected), which is a great place to start, here’s some recommended reading: