Stress and anxiety, and “negative emotions” more generally, are normal aspects of life. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t, sometimes, feel upset; including feeling anxious and stressed.
This is true for our children, just as it is for us as adults.
Notably, stress and anxiety are not always bad. In fact, stress and anxiety are important human emotions; emotions without which we probably would not have survived and evolved as a species (think about it; without fear we’d engage in risky and dangerous behaviours which in some instances would have led to death!).
Similarly, stress can have a positive impact on us and on our lives by enhancing performance and cognitive functioning via heightened physiological arousal and reactions times. In short, we perform many tasks better in many situations when we’re moderately aroused (as opposed to completely relaxed or calm).
Accordingly, our goal as adults and as parents should not be to eliminate anxiety or stress; but rather, to manage them so they stay within normal, useful, adaptive levels.
So how do you determine when “normal” stress becomes “abnormal” (or unhelpful) and what can you about it?
At the risk of oversimplifying, stress is useful in so far as it boosts performance in some way. If or when, however, it detracts from performance in any way then it is, or is becoming unhelpful and abnormal.
So if your child is excessively worrying or upset about school or school related issues and/or it’s impacting on their academic or social functioning then it’s almost certainly worth considering one or more of the following practical strategies (and please note: all of these could be considered helpful and useful to any and all children so there’s no harm in trying them in any case):
- Don’t over schedule – it’s too easy to fill up every minute of every day with every manner of school related and extra-curricular activity; and although many of these are stimulating and worthy, it’s important for children to have some “nothing” time for relaxation and recuperation
- Don’t forget about sleep – which is just as important as the rest and relaxation just referred to. The average child is getting an hour’s less sleep each night than he or she needs which among other things, detracts from their physical and psychological health
- Let the children play – it’s hard to be stressed if you’re having fun! Children need fun and play; we all need fun and play; research suggests that play enhances creativity and cognitive functioning more generally
- Be a good role model and manage your own stress – make sure that you, as the parent, do what you want your kids to do. So exercise, eat well, get enough sleep and manage your stress; in doing so you’ll be teaching them important lessons for life
- Label, and help your children label “negative emotions” – talk to your children about how stress and anxiety are normal emotions and then, help them to label the different types of unpleasant emotions. Research suggests that if this is all you do, label your emotions, you’ll manage them better and they’ll have less impact
- Help them develop good coping strategies around time management and study – spontaneity and flexibility are important; but so too are structure and organisation. Help your children get organised by collaboratively developing an after-hours timetable that includes study and homework, but also exercise and fun
- Teach your children that mistakes are OK (and how to learn from them) – stress often comes from feeling like we’re not doing as well as we should be doing; but many of these expectations are unrealistic. So help your children set more realistic expectations including, helping them accept that it’s OK not to be perfect all the time!
- Reassure them it’s OK to ask for help – and because we’re not perfect all the time, it’s also OK to ask for help (from parents, teachers, friends etc.). This should never be seen as a sign of weakness of failure but rather, as an effective and positive coping strategy
- Help them focus more on what they can do (rather than on what they can’t do) – another significant contributor to stress is the perception of lack of control. But there’s always something we can control, even if it’s just how we react to not having full control. So teaching your children to focus on what they can do, even if it’s not everything, and on what they can control, even if it’s not everything, will massively increase their confidence and ability to cope with whatever comes their way
- Encourage them to also take care of their physical health (diet, exercise and even meditation) – exercise is not just good for our physical health but also, for our psychological health and wellbeing. Exercise is one of the most powerful stress busters and mood enhancers. So make sure your children are not spending too much time in front of screens and are spending enough time running around and being active.