Managing "Back to School" Stress

By Margo Shabinsky Sherman, MSW

Stress is a normal part of life. In small quantities, stress is good --- it can motivate you and help you to be more productive. However, too much stress or a strong response to stress, particularly persistent and unrelenting stress, is harmful. Stress can cause havoc on more than just your home life. Today, we know that the effects of stress on your health and wellness can be profound---it can result in general poor health as well as specific physical and/or psychological illnesses such as infection, heart disease and depression.

Stress can arise from any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry or anxious. Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension or fear. The source of this uneasiness is not always known or recognized, which can lead to the distress you feel. What is stressful to one person is not necessarily stressful to another.

However, "reduce your stress" is easy to say, but hard to do. Or is it? Once you have figured out what works for you, your stress-filled life will feel a little lighter. With some practical tips, you can plan for stress and take active steps to manage it.

Conquering "back to school" stress is often a challenge for parents and children alike---the transition from the lengthy break from activities, less structure, less (academic/work-based) performance, to a more structured daily routine, new teachers, more homework, an increase in extra-curricular activities, and time-management challenges.

A few suggestions towards managing "back to school" stress are:

  • Create open lines of communication between you and your child(ren), encouraging your child to tell you what is exciting about school, as well as what is anxiety provoking. Let your child know that you will be available for support and open discussions. Do not immediately discount his/her concerns; instead, focus on validating feelings, encourage problem-solving skills by helping to find solutions. Be positive and reassuring , and show your enthusiasm for what the new school year brings.

  • Anticipate possible indicators of stress or anxiety in your child, and be on the lookout for clues. These could include: withdrawn/aggressive behaviour; sleep disturbances; clinginess, crying or irritability; bed/daytime bedwetting; avoiding school/social activities; reverting to younger behaviours; nervous habits (eg. chewing fingernails, hair twirling); frequent headaches/stomachaches; sudden problems in school. If you notice that your child is stressed, talk to him her about coping techniques and solutions (see: 1).

  • Be organized. Anxiety is compounded by not being able to find materials, leaving assignments until deadlines, and over-planning of activities. Buy a family planner and place it in an easy-to-see location. Ensure that family members are aware of planning changes. Ensure that your child has a comfortable, quiet place to study, establish routines (eg. lay children's clothes out the night before) that make this "back to school" transition easier.

  • Both parents and children need to get plenty of sleep, eat nutritionally, and build in daily physical activity and relaxation/meditation. Children and parents are more stressed today than in the past because of our busy lifestyle choices --- carefully evaluate your family's activities and demands, and assess the physical/psychological benefits/drawbacks of these choices. Involve your child in healthy lunchbox choices, pack snack-size easy-to-grab portions. Plan family activities --- it gives everyone something to look forward to, and is good for them and for you. Inhale, exhale, breathe.

  • Finally, if despite your best efforts, your/your children's discomfort persists, seek professional help, and benefit from the added support that you need at this time. Learn strategies and skills to help your family manage your stress and enjoy your busy life!