While school might not include a crazy commute or a cranky boss, growing up isn’t easy. The transition from summer vacation to school — with its academic and social pressures — can feel especially stressful.
A recent American Psychological Association survey found that parents often underestimate how much stress their children experience, as well as the toll it takes on their health. Stress can disturb kids’ sleeping patterns, raise their risk of infection, and worsen diabetes, asthma, and allergies. Left alone, stress builds up, affecting the entire body, including the developing brain.
Fortunately, parents can shape how kids respond to stress, making them more likely to grow into healthy, resilient adults. Here are the top stressors your children might encounter at school, by age group — and how to help them cope.
- A new teacher: Back-to-school means getting used to a new teacher’s rules, routines, and expectations.
- A change in routine: After an entire summer spent staying up late and sleeping in, kids suddenly find themselves needing to stick to strict bedtime, morning, and eating schedules again.
- Friends: In elementary school, “kids’ strongest friendships are with the kids they’ve been in class with,” says Beth Doll, an educational psychology professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. When class rosters shuffle or friends leave the school, it can be scary for kids to find themselves with few or none of last year’s classmates.
How to help: Young children in particular benefit from predictability. Get them excited about going back to school by shopping for supplies together. Help your kids start following their school day routine about a week beforehand. Budget time to go to their school’s open house, where they can see their classroom and meet their soon-to-be teachers and classmates. Sign forms and help pick outfits and pack backpacks in advance to avoid last-minute stress.
Even after the first day, little ones will need help organizing their time. Review homework assignments with your child, setting aside specific time blocks for the work, suggests Linda Levine, a psychology professor at the University of California at Irvine.
- A new environment: Children transitioning to middle school might worry about navigating an unfamiliar building or entirely new campus.
- A new schedule: A new school year means learning new schedules, not to mention multiple new teachers’ rules and expectations.
- Academic demands: At this age, kids start learning more complex ideas, juggling assignments from different classes, and working on planning and time management skills for long-term assignments.
- Friends and peers: Social dynamics become more complicated in these years. Kids may begin fixating on appearance, wanting to look and act “cool.”
- Identity: As kids’ bodies transform during middle school, they also grow more concerned about developing their identities and discovering their interests and talents.
How to help: Attend open houses and orientations with your kids so they can learn about new class routes and schedules and meet new teachers and classmates. Help them work on time-management skills they might have started to build in lower grades (like how to break down big assignments into bite-sized tasks) and support their involvement in extracurricular and social activities.
Although parents often feel “replaced” by their tweens’ friends, “parents still matter very much,” says Tammy Hughes, a counseling, psychology, and special education professor at Duquesne University. “But peers matter, too.” Open the lines of communication early on, and don’t give up easily.
Venture beyond a vague “How was your day?” and ask kids to walk you through their day in detail, Levine suggests. “That way, if children are stressed or worried, they’ll feel comfortable and safe sharing that with the parent” — even as they grow older.
Besides a new environment or schedule and ongoing identity concerns, high schoolers face a few other tough issues:
- Peer pressure: Teens can gravitate towards risky behaviors because their brains’ emotional and pleasure-seeking regions are getting rewired. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-control and other higher-level thinking, matures later.
- Academics: Just as school gets ever tougher, there’s pressure to get good grades and test scores for college applications. Some might start to wonder why they need to stay in school at all.
- Sleep: High schoolers need sleep as much as ever, but between school, friends, extracurricular activities, and even part-time jobs, they rarely get enough.
- The future: They start to wonder what comes next. “Where should I go to college?” “What should I do when I grow up?” The big changes and uncertainty can be very stressful.
How to help: Teens need as much parenting as younger kids. In fact, studies show that teens experience more intense emotional responses than adults and younger children. Again, take advantage of school orientations and talk with your kids honestly from an early age. Frequent conversations tend to sink in more than big lectures, Hughes says.
Even if your teen does lash out, she notes, remember that we tend to act our worst around those we trust most. What looks like rejection might actually be a cry for help. Talk problems out over ice cream or dinner. Point out the many routes to a productive, happy life — and keep it fun. (Levine and her daughter turned an afternoon of leafing through a book of college descriptions into a picnic date.)
Encourage teens to turn off screens and turn in at a reasonable hour — it’ll help them stay healthy and mentally recharge, too. Regardless of their age, make a habit of reminding kids of their own resiliency and how they’ve coped with problems before, Hughes says. Even if they can’t find the bathroom, they know how to ask others for help.
Most of all, breathe and remind yourself that the stress your child feels is completely normal. Transitions are hard. “You don’t need to freak out,” Hughes says. “Do what you can to be prepared.”
- Key Concepts: Toxic Stress. Center on the Developing Child Harvard University.
- Siegel D. How the Teen Brain Transforms Relationships. August 12, 2014. Greater Good.
- Back-to-School Transitions: Tips for Parents. National Association of School Psychologists.
- Tennant, V. The Powerful Impact of Stress. September 2005. Johns Hopkins School of Education.