TV Appearance: Back to School Stress

In early October I made an appearance on CNN HLN Charter Local Edition with Brad Pomerance to discuss ways to identify and cope with back to school stress.  While we were discussing the stress that can occur when transitioning from summer vacation to school, many of these strategies also apply to the transition back from school vacations.  With Thanksgiving and the winter holidays quickly approaching, it might help to think about ways to keep your kids on schedule so that the transition is not too difficult.  Enjoy!

(Long intro, be patient…)

Back to School Stress (Tips for staying calm)

Back to school is an exciting time.  There’s lots of shopping to be done:  New clothes, new shoes, new crayons, and new backpacks are all in order.  As the beginning of school approaches, kids start to look forward to friends they might have missed over the summer.  Yes, back to school is an exciting time.

But it can also be very stressful, and it is completely normal for kids to experience some back to school anxiety.

Getting a new teacher means adapting to a new teaching style and starting from scratch.  For a child who struggles with transitions, this is a recipe for stress.  Riley spent the entire week before school started trying to convince me that staying home would be much easier than meeting new teachers.  As it turns out, she loves her new class (as I knew she would).

There are other back to school stressors as well.

Some kids will worry about making new friends and where their friendships from the previous year stand.  If they are split up from a best friend, they might fear losing that friend or not being able to form a similar friendship in their new class.

The return to a busier schedule puts a huge amount of stress on children.  Chances are that, just weeks ago, they sat around in their pajamas until late morning.  Suddenly they’re rushing to get dressed, rushing through breakfast, and rushing out the door each morning.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And then there are the extra curricular activities.  Everything seems to start at once.

Many parents experience their own back to school stress.  They worry about such things as:  Getting the “best” teacher, whether or not their child will be happy and have friends, and separating from their kids again after a couple of months together.  When parents are under stress, kids are quick to pick up on it.  Try to save your worries for late night chats with your spouse to minimize eavesdropping by smaller ears.

We tend to focus on the excitement of back to school with the hope that it will encourage our children, but the truth is that children experience stress too.  They just don’t always verbalize it.  The good news is there are a few steps you can take to make the adjustment a little less stressful.  Below are some tips to help you help reduce back to school stress:

1.   Focus on routine:  The latest research shows that American children, on average, are under-slept.  Having a good bedtime routine is essential to helping your children catch up on sleep.  Children need anywhere from 11-14 hours of sleep (total).  A consistent bedtime (between 7-8pm is best) will help your child’s body adjust to a schedule and ensure better sleep.  A consistent morning routine is also beneficial.  Create a morning routine checklist to tape to your child’s door to help them stay focused.  Consider doing some prep work in advance.  I always have Riley decide on her breakfast for the next day before she goes to bed.  That way I can get downstairs early on waffle day and start making the batter!  Fruit can be cut up the night before, and choosing an outfit before bed can shave some time off the time it takes most preschoolers to get dressed in the morning.  Try to start the day off with a balanced breakfast (Pop Tarts don’t count), even if it means getting out of bed a little bit earlier.  Your children will thank you later.

2.   Avoid friendship focus:  As parents, we want to know that our kids are making friends and having fun.  The last thing we want is to hear that one of our children eats lunch alone every day.  But making friends is hard work, and can take time.  Some kids jump right into it while others take some time to warm up to new kids.  Let your kids make new friends at their own pace.  Instead of asking your child which friends she played with, try asking what fun activities she did at school.  Ask specific questions about art projects and stories read that day.  Taking the focus off of friendship making shows your child that you are interested in what she’s doing at school, and that you are proud of her efforts.

3.   Minimize extra-curricular activities:  There’s no doubt about it, kids today tend to be overscheduled.  Kids don’t know when to say when.  Left to their own devices, some kids would do absolutely nothing while others would sign up for every available activity.  Parents need to set the limits.  When kids are in school (including preschool), 1-2 additional activities are plenty.  Kids need time to decompress and just play.  Let them have it.

4.   Factor in downtime:  Learning to cope with stress is difficult.  Particularly for young children.  Having downtime to engage in relaxing activities is essential to building adaptive coping strategies.  Build a daily quiet time (45-60 minutes) into your early afternoon routine.  Consider investing in some “quiet time toys” to keep it interesting and special.  Check on your kids if they need it, but otherwise try to let them settle in a play quietly in their rooms.  If they are given the opportunity to practice calming activities regularly, they have a better chance of remembering to use those strategies when they are under stress.  Liam recently learned to climb into his crib when feeling overwhelmed.

5.   Know the symptoms:  Many young children struggle to verbalize their feelings when under stress, but those feelings will manifest in other ways.  Symptoms of stress in children include:  Stomach aches, headaches, poor appetite, difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and nightmares.  They also tend to come up with excuses to avoid school, play dates, and other activities.  Some back to school anxiety is to be expected, but it should resolve within 6-8 weeks.  If you notice some of the above-mentioned symptoms and the stress seems to continue beyond 6-8 weeks, call your pediatrician to check in.

6.   Communicate on your child’s level:  Parents love to start asking questions during the ride home from school because it’s a nice quiet place to catch up.  Many kids actually need time to process the day before talking about it.  They’ve been working hard at school and likely had some new experiences.  They might need some time to think about it.  Consider approaching your child later in the day (like after quiet time or during dinner) to check in about the day.  Ask specific questions and follow up with other questions when they share interesting stories.  Praise them with specific details (this helps build self-esteem, whereas “great job” or “I’m so proud” is very general and can be confusing).  You know your child best.  Riley likes to sit back and relax during the ride home from school.  We talk a little, but I try to just let her relax and enjoy the ride.  She always comes to me bearing details of the day during her afternoon snack.  Every single time.

Back to school stress is a very normal part of readjusting to school after a couple of months away.  It generally doesn’t last too long and is usually resolved with a structured routine that includes a little downtime.

How do you combat back to school stress?

Note:  If you are in Southern California, please be sure to catch my interview on this very topic, with Brad Pomerance, on HLN Local Edition airing during the week of 10/3-10/9!

Preschool Stress (Tips for helping your child cope)

Preschoolers are in the business of having fun.  They run, jump, draw, play, and approach life with a level of energy that their parents haven’t felt in years.  They smile and laugh a lot.  They find worms fascinating and laugh at jokes that we can’t quite decipher.  Their days are filled with learning, love, and laughter.  Most of the time.

We don’t typically evaluate our preschoolers in terms of their stress level, but stress is a very real part of the life of the preschooler.  People love to say things like, “kids are resilient”.  To some degree, this is accurate.  They can cope with everyday stressors such as learning to write, playground squabbles, sibling rivalry, etc. with little intervention, but the larger stressors can cause behavioral changes and exhaustion.  Due to the up and down nature of a typical day in the life of a preschooler, it can be hard to know when significant stress is a factor.

It’s helpful to be aware of some of the typical signs and triggers of stress in preschoolers.

Signs of stress:

Clinging behavior

Poor sleep/restlessness

Resisting playtime

Child appears less outgoing

Child appears withdrawn

Fewer smiles

Regressed behavior (potty training pitfalls, baby talk, etc)

Hitting, biting, and other aggressive behavior (that is not typical)

Frequent crying

Tantrums

Triggers of stress:

Change in routine (summer is coming!)

New baby

New teacher

New babysitter

Separation from a loved one/caregiver

New bed/bedroom/home

Too many activities (kids get tired too!)

Illness

Loss of a pet

Gives up a favorite blanket/toy/pacifier

All kids manifest symptoms of stress in different ways.  Liam cries a lot and likes to stick close to home while Riley has trouble sleeping and clings to me every second of the day.  Two weeks into a 5-week trip for Sean, and we are just emerging from the haze of “stress” and returning to some version of normal.  It’s hard on kids.  Below are some tips to help you help your kids cope with stress:

1. Focus on family: This sounds like an easy one, I know, but it can be hard when families are under stress.  Kids feel emotional closeness when parents get down on their level and play, engage, and ask about their day. Make family play time an opportunity to ask your child how he is feeling and what you can do to help.  Play board games with older preschoolers and choose family art projects with younger ones.

2. Increase structure: Kids feel safe when they know what to expect and can plan ahead.  Structure your days so that they always know what to expect. Taking the guesswork out of their days means a few less worries.  Many kids also like to help with chores and respond well to responsibility charts and incentive charts. Liam and Riley love to earn magnets for helping with putting away their toys and clearing their plates without being asked.

3. Story time: Preschoolers love to read!  I often catch Riley reading to Liam when I’m in laundry mode and they just can’t wait one more minute.  Sitting together and reading stories provides emotional comfort to your kids while focusing on togetherness. Don’t worry yourself about reading books focused on stress and coping, just sit together and read.  Talk about the characters and what’s happening in the story.  Relate it to your own lives.  Have a nice, quiet family time.

4. Draw feelings faces: I recently joked to Sean that Riley has officially graduated from mommy’s therapy after she approached me with a drawing of a sad face and said, “this is how I feel when you pay too much attention to Liam”.  Helping kids to draw their feelings gives them a much-needed release for those feelings that have probably been brewing for quite some time. It gives them a positive way to cope with their stress, and provides an opportunity to discuss the triggers.  Do it regularly and you, too, might have the feelings pictures delivered directly to your hands!

Riley's feelings face

5. Color your feelings: Another great teaching tool when it comes to coping with stress is having kids color their feelings.  Have them pick colors to represent different feelings (sad, happy, mad, lonely, etc) and have them fill up the page with as much of each color as they feel that day. This provides another opportunity to discuss the causes of stress and how to add more “happy colors” to the day.

6. Relaxing exercise: We all know that regular exercise reduces stress.  Choose activities that you can do together while getting some exercise.  A treasure hunt through the park to find leaves, acorns, and pine cones can provide exercise and fun.  I can’t say enough good things about Playful Planet’s Storyland Yoga for kids.  Riley and I do this together and enjoy it each time.

7. Mixed up days: We love pajama parties in this house.  Sometimes putting on our favorite pj’s before heading out to play and making breakfast for dinner can add just enough silliness to our day to relieve some stress.  We’ve also tried “color days” (we recently wore yellow together) and “fancy days” (led by Riley, of course).  Letting your kids make these choices for you once in a while gives them some extra self-confidence and keeps everybody smiling.

8. Focus on sleep: A well-slept child (or adult) is a less stressed child (or adult).  Develop a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it. Make bath time a little longer, decrease nighttime TV, and read a few books.  Tell a relaxing story as your child drifts off to sleep.  Always leave the room on a positive.

Children experience stress for a variety of reasons.  A little extra TLC and a lot of empathy can go a long way toward helping your child cope with stress.  And keeping your own stress in check is the best way for you to remain calm and healthy when your children need you the most.

How do you help your child cope with stress?