Friday, September 07, 2012

Help your kids cope when school gets a little stressful

From today's Briefing:

It’s barely two weeks into the new school year and we’re dealing with some major stress.
Well, “major” is relative. If you ask Katie, we’re talking big-time tension.
“When it’s time for writing,” she says, “it sometimes feels like my body is going to explode.”
I’m working on pinpointing exactly what makes her so nervous about second-grade writing assignments. And I’m working with her to understand how to recognize symptoms of stress and healthy ways to alleviate it.
When Katie was younger, her default reaction to stress was tears. Maturity and maybe a little peer pressure have dried up most of those crying jags. But she still finds herself in stressful situations, and that emotion has to go somewhere.
Lately, it seems to go straight to her belly. The absence of any other symptoms and the timing of her stomachaches convince me that part of the problem is that she keeps her stress inside, rather than letting it out.
We’ve been practicing strategies to relieve her stress. Her favorite so far: Before a stressful assignment, pull out a piece of paper and scribble out the worries.
I might be an expert on my own child, but I’m no psychology expert. So I checked in with Dr. Peter Stavinoha, director of neuropsychology services at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, for some general advice on stress in elementary-age children. Here are excerpts from our email discussion.
What are some typical stress triggers for elementary-age children?
New situations
Unfamiliar or unpredictable situations
Fear of failure or embarrassment
Big changes, like starting a brand-new school, or transitioning from elementary to middle school
Unreasonably high expectations
Which physical and emotional signs of stress should parents watch for?
Sleep changes
Fearfulness or nervousness
Avoidance of certain activities
Sleep problems
Minor physical complaints
What roles do diet, exercise and adequate sleep play in how a child can deal with typical stress factors? 
We know that proper diet, adequate exercise and ample sleep can help reduce stress. However, when we are feeling very stressed, we often do not adhere to these good habits — kids and adults alike. Poor eating, lack of exercise and inadequate sleep can all contribute to a person being more vulnerable to stress.
What are some techniques that parents can share with their children to alleviate stress? 
Maintaining regular diet, sleep and exercise habits is a good start. Parents want to maintain a sense of normalcy for their child: Keep things as predictable and routine as possible.
Parents also need to check their own expectations for their child to be sure the parent is not inadvertently contributing to the child’s feelings of stress. Talking through stressful situations can help demystify what might seem unknown or unfamiliar to the child.
Parents can even practice talking through a situation that the child might face. Specific relaxation methods might include things that many people find relaxing — listening to soft music; spending focused time with mom or dad; exercises including taking a walk, bike ride, or even yoga; deep breathing exercises; and muscle relaxation methods.
Visualization is another technique sometimes used — basically having the child imagine herself in her favorite place and having the child describe all the inviting, comforting and beautiful things she “sees.”
Simply trying to rationalize with your child that their stress is unwarranted is probably not going to get very far. Parents should acknowledge the child’s stress/uncertainty and provide reassurance and even practice.
At what point should a parent seek outside help for a child’s stress? 
If stress does not subside relatively quickly or becomes so strong that it prevents the child from joining activities that most kids are able to cope with, then parents may wish to seek out help.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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