Helping Kids Deal with School Stress
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Helping Kids Deal with School Stress

Tips to reduce your child's back-to-school anxiety

By Sarah Protzman Howlett

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Heading back to school in another season of this stubborn pandemic adds a layer of stress to an already difficult transition from the freedom of summer break. Here are several strategies and sample scenarios of stress management for kids to help both you and your kids manage anxiety and stress in this time of uncertainty.

Validate, validate, validate.

“I don’t wanna go to school” is a common refrain in any school year, and ongoing pandemic concerns means stress relief for kids is as important as ever. When kids come home with “I’m not going tomorrow!” or “My teacher is mean!” focus on hearing their words, not changing their mind. “You’ll be fine!” we want to say. “You’ll get used to it. Don’t be sad.” Instead of dismissive language, however, validate and empathize. This doesn’t mean you agree their teacher is mean. It just means your priority becomes making sure they feel heard. Try saying, “I can understand that. Tell me more” or something like, “It’s hard to get used to a new teacher and schedule, and it’s OK not to like it right now.”

Manage meltdowns.

You are still a good parent even if your kid has tantrums! Parents’ job is not to prevent after-school meltdowns, but to help keep them within a manageable zone when big feelings bubble up. Stressed kids often become emotionally flooded when they are tired and recall something upsetting that happened at school. Parents can help by coaxing their kids’ attention out of their heads and into their bodies: “How does the stress feel in your body?” you can say. Then share something appropriate from your own life: “When I’m stressed, I feel…” A printable emotions color wheel is also a great tool to help everyone in the family expand emotional vocabulary beyond the basics like happy, sad and mad.

Resist the urge to overschedule your kids.

Boredom can be a wonderful thing. Try saying, “I’m sorry you’re bored. I look forward to seeing what you decide to do.” Give it five minutes and see if they find a way to fill the time.

Set small goals.

A huge part of stress management for kids is adjusting adult-centered expectations. Kids are not mini adults, and it is indeed hard to sit still in school all day! When they come home, break activities into small bites. Try 15 minutes of drawing, then 15 minutes of homework, repeat. Or try something like, “Please help me with the dishes for five minutes, and then you can go outside.” Set a timer, put on a cleanup song, or use an hourglass for a strong visual of time passing.

Make expectations visible.

Scads of printables online serve as tools for stress relief for kids by ensuring they understand what the day will bring. A sense of control can be a calming influence, and can be as easy as pinning up a dollar-store calendar marked with birthday parties, trips or a visit with cousins, as well as dentist appointments, classes and exam days. For younger children, a paper chain provides a visual to count days until their birthday or a holiday. Tear off one loop each day as a countdown; kids love watching that chain get shorter!

Boost your calm-down arsenal

> Play a relaxing, family-friendly podcast. Circle Round features beautiful tales from around the world, and no bathroom humor or fart sound effects! (Harder to find than you’d think…) Try putting on the podcast without fanfare, coercion or introduction, and see if the kids get immersed in the story.

> Stream yoga or spa music, or a meditation/breathing exercise. If kids see their parents employing these tools, too, it normalizes them and piques their interest.

> Create a sensory box. Fidget toys, bubble timers, silly putty, kinetic sand and the like provide stress management for kids and adults. And again, if your kids see you using them, too, they’ll be curious!

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