written by: Elysia Arseneau, Ontario Certified Teacher and NutriChem staff writer
New transitions can cause stress in most people: as a former classroom teacher I saw firsthand the feelings of stress that many children feel at the beginning of the school year. The excitement that starts as back-to-school season kicks into full gear can be exhilarating at first, but it can also lead many children (and parents!) to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed.
Here are some tips to help make this year’s transition easier on your child (or children).
1. Identify Stress and Anxiety
Especially when they’re younger, children don’t have the necessary vocabulary to tell adults that they’re stressed. Therefore, parents must first identify signs of stress in their children. These will often manifest themselves in common physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, difficulty sleeping, and a general feeling of being unwell. They can be progressive or sudden changes.
Changes in behaviour can also signal stress, so parents should be on the lookout for things like changes in appetite, irritability, temper tantrums, crying spells, and avoidance or refusal techniques (for example faking an illness to get out of something).
2. Talk to them about it
Once stress is identified, you should have an open discussion with your child to identify the root cause of their stress. Is it a problem with a friend? Too much homework? Bullying or exclusion? Is sport practice getting in the way of homework? Is it a body image or self-confidence issue?
You can begin the conversation by casually asking about school while doing a chore around the house together, or driving somewhere. Depending on the child, even something as simple as a gentle “I feel like you’re not acting like yourself lately. Can we talk about it?” will work. Don’t pressure your child into sharing, and try to refrain from pressing for answers. But having that open and honest dialogue will start easing your child’s stress immediately, and will remind them that you are on their side and are there to help.
Parents can usually identify the source of stress themselves, but if more information is needed you can also contact your child’s homeroom teacher to set up a 15-30 minute phone conversation or face-to-face meeting.
3. Figure it out together
In an interview with CBC Montreal, Catherine Raymond, a researcher at Montreal’s Centre for Studies on Human Stress, said that parents could help children reduce stress by reducing the idea that the stressor is novel or unpredictable. You can try to remember what it was like for you, share how you handled it, and give your child your tips. Things will seem less unpredictable for them if they know it’s a normal thing that happens to many people.
For example, if a pre-teen is worried about the transition from elementary school to high school, you can share the apprehension that you felt when you were their age and going through the same thing. Remind them that even though it was a little nerve-wracking, everything turned out OK in the end because your friends were there, or you had your sibling to go on the bus with you, or everybody you met was feeling the same thing as you, etc.
If a new environment is the cause of your child’s stress, for example a new dance studio, you could go there and walk around together. This way, the environment will seem less “new” or “strange” for your child.
As long as the brain perceives a threat, you can see stress symptoms. This could range from a few days, a few weeks, even up to a few months! There are things you can do to reduce sources of stress in your child’s life on an ongoing basis.
4. Set a good example: don’t project your stress
Parents’ moods can affect their children’s. While Dorothy Law Nolte’s beautiful poem “Children Learn What They Live” doesn’t directly mention the word “stress,” it serves to remind us that children, especially those 12 years old and younger, pick up on adults’ feelings and moods. By getting your own stress under control, you not only help your children with theirs, but also show them by example how it’s done.
You can apply the tips in this article to your own life to help you deal with your own stresses!
5. Create and maintain routines
By planning ahead, parents can prevent many conflicts that add to stress (especially in the rushed mornings). Choose outfits, pack lunches, and check that all homework is complete the night before to prevent morning stress. Co-creating a visual schedule on a whiteboard works well in a home because it keeps everyone informed, on track, and accountable.
Other visuals that parents love are checklists and flowcharts to help children get organized and stay on schedule. They help to ease anxiety and provide reminders of what comes after one task is completed. Have your children create the schedule with you as a way to give them a sense of control over their own life.
Remember that routines need to be modeled to children. They need to be shown what to do and not just told what to do. So make sure that you and your spouse are following the schedule/checklist too!
6. Give children a sense of control
Having a low sense of control is a key element to producing stress response. Thus, giving your child some control over small choices throughout the week will make them feel in control of at least some areas of their own life and schedule.
Try giving children simple choices like “do you want to wear the red t-shirt or the orange one tomorrow?” or “do you want the cucumbers cut into circles or sticks?” to give children a sense of choice and control. Allow them to decorate their agenda however they want, or ask them what part of meal prep they’d like to help with (age-appropriate tasks, of course). High school students can choose what extra-curricular activities they want to do.
Most importantly, children need to learn on their own, and make their own mistakes in order to learn from them. Give your child the room they need to do things how they like them, even if that drives you crazy at times!
7. Build downtime into the weekly schedule
Try not to be too stiff on the weekly schedule, and definitely stop over-scheduling yourself, your spouse, and your children. It is important that everyone has unscheduled time in his or her week to imagine, daydream, create, and relax at home or outdoors.
Learning to say NO helps your family stays balanced. As a bonus, limiting exposure to new activities in the beginning of the school year helps children cope with the transition of back-to-school.
8. Ensure proper sleep
This one is critical at all ages because it’s when the body heals and regenerates itself. Most people are surprised at how much sleep children actually need. new recommendations state that school-aged children sleep 8-13 hours per night, depending on age.
If your child isn’t getting enough sleep, you may notice low energy, lethargy, yawning, crankiness, and dark circles under their eyes (same symptoms as in adults!). Without good sleep, children are less able to deal with stress, plus they may have problems with behaviour, alertness, irritability, sadness or anger.
Here are tips to promote proper sleep:
- No screens of any kind for 1-2 hours before bedtime: the blue light keeps the eyes and brain awake, and often the activities children are doing with the screens are quite stimulating.
- Start the wind-down and bedtime routine one hour before bedtime. This can include quiet, relaxing activities like a bath, snuggling, meditation, story time or reading, but definitely no playing.
- Make sure that your child’s bedroom is completely dark and slightly cool for optimal sleep.
It’s a vicious cycle, but lack of sleep makes us more susceptible to stress, and being stressed can prevent us from sleeping. There are supplements available to help your child relax and get to sleep, including:
9. Eat well and drink plenty of water
Eating a healthy balanced diet and drinking enough water can significantly reduce stress and help children better cope when stress pops up.
Tips from our Registered Holistic Nutritionists Laura and Julia include…
- removing added sugar, gluten and dairy from your child’s diet;
- loading up on vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats;
- encouraging water sipping throughout the day to help flush out the system;
- not buying nutrient-poor processed foods, including breakfast cereals and those fishies crackers. They can seems like a quick and easy snack, but most can wreak havoc on many of your child’s systems. (For more info, read this comprehensive article by Meghan Telpner, “Stop Feeding Kids These 5 ingredients”.)
Search "recipe" on the NutriChem blog for healthy meal and snack recipes that the whole family is sure to enjoy! Our recipes are created by our amazing nutritionists, so you know they're healthy, as well as (usually!) easy to make, gluten-free, dairy-free, and allergen-free.
To find out more about whether you or your child would benefit from speaking with a nutritionist, check out Julia’s blog post “Do I Need a Nutritionist?”
10. Exercise and breathe
Like adults, children need regular exercise. It forces us to breathe deeply, relaxes, lowers symptoms associated with anxiety and mild depression, and can also improve sleep. Enrolling your children into sports is one way of ensuring they get exercise, but it’s also good to spend time as a family doing physical activities together.
Try simple activities like walking or jogging around the neighbourhood, biking, doing yoga, or going to the park to play tag, kick a soccer ball or throw a Frisbee. You can also do more coordinated activities like tennis, rollerblading, hiking, rock climbing, or water or snow sports.
Whatever you choose to do together, don't think of it as just one more thing on your to-do list! Find an activity that you all enjoy or have each family member take turns choosing the activity for that week (and is another way for children to have a sense of control). Any form of physical activity can help your child de-stress, and with practice can become an important part of their approach to coping with stress in the future.
Ultimately, teaching children how to self-regulate and manage their stress starting at a young age will help them build the skills they need to become self-regulating adults who manage their stress well.