Back-to-school stress: the warning signs and what to do
Dr. Shimi Kang advises parents on how to limit their kids' stress
Tis the season to be stressed, for kids heading back to school.
The change from the routines of summer to a new schedule, new teachers and perhaps a new school and soon, homework, are often identified as causes of back-to-school stress for students.
For their parents, watching for signs of stress and helping their kids deal with it, should be a concern.
CBC News turned to psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang, the medical director for Child and Youth Mental Health for Vancouver for advice. Kang also teaches at the University of British Columbia and authored the 2014 book, The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger.
Warning signs of stress
Dr. Kang notes that children are usually "not going to tell us they're feeling stressed." Instead, they show physical symptoms, consciously or unconsciously, she says. These can include headaches, tummy aches, feeling tired, and general unwellness.
For example, a child may "say they have a tummy ache when they don't; they're trying to communicate something to you or they may actually feel a tummy ache and it's not from an abdominal source."
Parents should then find out if there's a direct cause or the tummy ache is a manifestation of stress.
Kang adds that it's important to acknowledge the symptoms and give the child the vocabulary to discuss what they are feeling and why.
She says "school refusal" is a big sign a child is "anxious or concerned about something at school." This can include refusing to prepare for school, or even to think about school.
Irritability is also a common manifestation of anxiety, Kang explains. If a child is "touchy, angry, grumpy, cranky," that can be a result of stress. The same goes for meltdowns and crying spells.
Other mental warning signs of stress in children include distractibility or inability to stay focused.
Kang notes that although we don't want kids growing up with serious stress, "we also don't want them growing up in a bubble."
"A little bit of adversity is definitely not a bad thing," she adds.
Good sleep critical
Good sleep is Dr. Kang’s key anti-stress prescription for kids.
She cites a study that found 40 per cent of Canadian children "are sleep deprived simply because they are too busy."
Kang views good sleep as the foundation of physical and mental health. Without it, children may have problems with behaviour, alertness, irritability, sadness and/or anger. And that's just in the short term.
She recommends 12 hours per night of sleep for pre-schoolers and then ten hours for kids into their teen years.
And, although she notes it's easier said than done, she recommends starting kids on their school sleep routine at least a week before school starts.
Eat well, drink water, exercise and breath deeply
Good sleep is a good start, but a good diet, drinking enough water and exercising can also significantly reduce stress. Breakfast is especially important, with studies showing that the students who get one do better in school.
In her book, The Dolphin Way, which uses dolphins as a model for human parenting, rather than jellyfish or tiger moms, Kang recommends parents teach their children deep, controlled breathing as an important tool to reduce stress, one that can be done in any life situation.
She says this "simple, underutilized" technique makes it "impossible to have high anxiety and panic."
"Our receptors in our lungs, when they are expanded fully, send a message to our brain that we're OK." Kang teaches deep breathing to her patients but notes a few, "give up too easily or aren't getting deep enough.”
Those are the priorities for stress reduction. Then parents can add the next level.
Set a positive, optimistic tone
Kang recommends parents, "Bring a tone of optimism and excitement to the beginning of school, focus on the positive aspects of learning, of expanding your mind, of meeting new people, of friendships," because that's usually contagious.
"Humans respond to their environment so if the environment is stressful then we will pick up that stress but if the environment is positive and optimistic, then we will pick that up," Kang tells CBC News.
Even if a child looks forward to going back to school, "that change can still be stressful in the biological sense," as stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are still released.
Build in daily downtime
"Without down time, time to integrate what they've seen, time to reflect, observe or just take some deep breaths," kids may get stressed.
That brings us to Kang's three 'overs,' things parents shouldn't do:
- Don't over-schedule: "Some schedules are great but too much throw us out of balance, especially in the transition back to school," from the freedom that usually comes with summer.
- Don't over-instruct: Parents "are often tempted to step in too soon and provide instruction," but kids do "have the ability to solve their own problems." Kang adds, "Parents are there to help them as opposed to tell them how to manage their life."
- Don't over-protect: "Children are meant to learn through trial and error." Kang says non-fatal mistakes provide important learning opportunities.
Guide rather than direct kids
Kang says that while coping skills for stress can be partly taught, kids also need to experience problems. Parents should act "as a guide, not a director" and elicit solutions.
She recommends parent start with open-ended questions. "Find out what your child is thinking," without an agenda or getting judgmental.
Then "ask permission before offering advice."
What to do when it's a new school
To deal with the added stress of starting at a new school, Kang advocates parents "help their child to evaluate the drawbacks and advantages of any change."
And let them know it's "OK to talk about how you're feeling about the new school."
"Even if they don't want to go, have all kinds of drawbacks, if they see you're trying to understand the things they don't like, they're more open to telling you what they might like and that's where the role of the parent can be 'have you thought about that, do you know your new school has this."
Kang recommends parents "allow the child to balance out drawbacks" and get the child to rank each one. That way the parent can "find out what they really need to work on and hone in on problem solving strategies."
Another idea is to do a tour of the new school and meet the teacher before school starts. Kang says that helps address preconceived notions a child may have, because familiarity can reduce stress.