Moving Beyond Back to School Stress

by Dwight Bain
Summer vacation ends with the first RING of the school bell, yet for many students it's not just the end to relaxing days, it's the beginning of major change and stress.  Back to school stress is a common emotional reaction that every child has to deal with from elementary through college years.  Most kids transition through this adjustment within a few days to a week and settle in for the challenges of the school year ahead.  However, it's getting more common to see children developing stress related disorders that affect their sleep, diet, energy and mood.  In extreme cases its possible that this build up of emotional pressure can grow and lead to other problems like childhood anxiety, depression and social phobias.  Thankfully there are a number of things that you can do as a parent, (or teacher) to help a child move from feeling overwhelmed by back to school stress by building in some strategies to bring early academic success. 
These principles will assist you in preventing your son or daughter from losing even a minute of the excitement of achieving the next level of academic success to the sometimes hidden, but still damaging effects of childhood stress and trauma. Remember, there are no simple answers to solve complex problems, but there are always options available to help you empower your son or daughter to turn negative pressure into positive performance. Think about the pressures facing your child this time of year as you consider each strategy to maximize the benefit to help them grow stronger by moving beyond back to school stress.
What is it about the school year beginning that creates so many problems for so many kids?
Think about it, you are facing a brand new sea of faces who don't know you, you don't know them and you are going to have to deal with them for almost a year of your life, whether or not you even like them or know if they will like you or not.  Kids can be mean and aggressive to the 'new kid' so it's no wonder our children get stressed out.  Most adults would run away as fast as possible to not have to deal with that kind of pressure, yet for guys and gals in most school settings don't have a choice.  School is beginning and there's nothing that they can do about it.  Who can't remember the pressure of facing new people and teachers who couldn't pronounce your name, while layering on the difficulty of trying to learn new subjects, while trying to fit in and find your place on campus without running into big bullies who cruise the halls looking for kids to intimidate.  Face it, back to school time is a tough adjustment for everyone and sometimes can feel very overwhelming to even the most skilled student.  It's normal to feel pressure in a new class setting, especially before an academic routine is established.  Take this seriously and plan on directly addressing any issues that come up, because it's been my experience that by taking direct action on pressures facing your kids that it dramatically helps normalize the problems that may build up as a 'secret' weakness inside your child now by getting things out in the open.  Better to take time to sort through the stressors facing your child now, focus on some positive strategies to over come the pressure and move forward in strength than to let the pressures go on to create problems for years.
Here are some strategies to guide you in helping your son or daughter to get past the' back to school stress' toward experiencing a new emotion, peace instead of stress and motivation instead of moodiness.  Consider using the beginning of this new school year transitions as an important time for you to review with your kids as they begin to map out building the best year of their lives academically, spiritually and in their relationships with others.  The formula is easy to remember because it spells out the word, "Stress" and following it will take this normal pressure off of your child so that they can quickly focus on using the strategies to build back to school success.
S-  Schedule
This is an essential part of building stability and is the best place to start.  Move everything possible to get things in your home onto a regular and structured schedule.  This especially includes sleep time for kids of all ages, along with regular meal times, homework time, worship time, goof-off time, play time and on and on.  The key here is to structure in the most important things first, so in case some of the lower priorities are missed, the main and most important issues are addressed in keeping your home environment the most stable and peaceful place possible. 
T- Talk
One of the worst questions to ask a school-age child is this worn out line; "So, tell me what you learned in school today?"  If your son or daughter responds by saying that the toilet water flows in the opposite direction in South America as it does here in the US, don't panic.  A simplistic question can't generate a well thought out answer from anyone, but it can get a response, which may or may not be accurate, and often could even be inappropriate.  Better to create an environment that will be dedicated to open and honest discussions than one that has 'pat' answers to poorly worded questions that says to a lot of kids, wow, you really didn't want to take time to bother with us today, or worse, 'just tell them what they want to hear because they don't really care anyway.'   I'm sure that you want to know more about the pressures your son or daughter is facing than they could imagine, and as you better learn to think through the main issues to format questions ahead of time you will continue to see positive change and growth slowly replace the negative fears, which is what we want to see take place.  Develop some basic questions about the back to school stress that is facing them ahead of time so that you can figure out the best way to discuss the fact that things are moving along quickly for them in lots of ways, which is normal, but still scary sometimes until you face it and grow past that fear.
R- Rest
We've already talked about the importance of regular sleep and maintaining a balanced lifestyle, however, this strategy is based on building in times to just kick back.  Back to school is a challenge and for some kids, the daily disciplines are a continual challenge of deadlines, seemingly endless tasks and not feeling as if you fit in anywhere.  Taking time to rest your body and mind with calming music, play time with pets or on a bike trail, or by playing with blocks to not make every waking second about homework, class assignments and daily chores.  Remember that the Bible teaches that God created man on the 6th day, but that man didn't go to work until the 8th day.  Do you know what happened on the 7th day?  That's right, God rested as a role model for men to rest.  Work came after rest, and the most focused work comes when we know how to maintain the timing of scheduled times of rest to 're-create' the positive energy within our soul to move forward in strength.
E- Equip
This strategy is about building in regular times to help a child develop confidence and strength, physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually.  Think about what a lot of parenting is really about anyway.  Training up a child to go out into the world with the strength to make it and the confidence to try it.  Equipping includes being able to help a child say 'no' because you were strong enough to move ahead and model self-discipline on issues that required a firm hand that was dedicated to you learning what needed to change first and then getting to work making those changes. Children who are well equipped tend to launch out into the world and accomplish early success because they know how to work hard, yet to keep things in balance like they saw their parents model for them.
S- Strengths
Anxiety and pressure tend to grow up in direct proportion to how in control, or how out of control we feel at the time.  Prayerfully considering the strengths of each of your children, then testing or asking other teachers or parents for their impressions is actually quite valuable because so much can be done to help that child know how to dramatically remove the dangers of this dysfunctional patter, more stress = less control; less stress = greater control of the guidance needed to move your child from stress to success in the days ahead.  That's good news for parents and great news for children. Take the time to understand your child's strengths and then the time to build on those qualities and you will begin to see more success and more success.  That's how it goes when you build on strengths and work directly on a plan to break generational patterns and move to a new level of strength and peace.  If you want to learn more about building on a child's academic and personality strengths, check out the parenting strategies to build strong kids at   the website of Mel Levine, MD, a behavioral pediatrician and pioneer in this area of research on guiding kids past stress to achieve greater levels of success.
S- Spirituality
God put us on this earth for a purpose.  We've all heard that, and we've also heard lots of things from people with very opposite, yet very strong opinions on lots of other topics.  What makes a spiritual connection to God a key part of this strategic approach?  Simple, God is real and I believe that He is everywhere and plans out our steps, even when we can't see what he is doing behind the scenes spiritually.  Even when you can't be there for your child, God can and teaching this spiritual strategy to a small child will reassure them that God will never leave them or forsake them.  That's comforting to the healthily people involved and brings hope to those who may have been burned by overly religious people with all the wrong reasons.  This issue isn't really about a church service as much as it's about an honest and realistic relationship by reaching out to God through prayer no matter what stress you may be facing today. 
Knowing that parents are involved in dealing with issues in a healthy way is always a key in gaining access into the heart of a child, which will aid in the increase of communication and trust as they see that you really do care about them and that you want their best.  This trust grows through your investment into the life of that child in how you plan out your time with them as an important member of the family.  Remember that they are learning more every day just by watching your responses to every day life than from anything that you will say to them.  Dr. Dobson's sage advice rings true on this issue, "values are not taught to children, values are caught by children."  Role model healthy ways to connect with them as part of a secure and loving family and you will see stress reduce as it's replaced with which is always what we want our family life at home to be like any time of the year.
Stay positive as you prayerfully plan for results:
Build strengths into your home now by focusing questions and seeking prayer for God's wisdom and guidance about which elements of back to school stress is most affecting your son or daughter so that they can begin to release pressure by directly dealing with the most important elements first.  Every child is different, so if they see it differently than you, or whatever is described as a growing problem in his life seems to be of little consequence.  Remember that if the child is struggling with some factor of back to school stress that moment, then that becomes your priority for that moment automatically.  You need to work toward gaining a level of stability in order to move forward onto bigger and more complex issues in the future.  Pick your battles as the old saying goes, since the school year will be long and some issues, (especially within peer relationships), can heat up pretty fast which can fill your home with conflict, difficulty and resentment.  I like to tell clients in that type of stressful situation that the most important time is the next 24 hours and our initial goal is to not make a stressful situation worse with other impulsive decisions or words. This positive change occurs as you take time to study, understand and then apply the key elements you have learned to connect to your child in stressful times to build a connection to grow through the stress, as well as the confidence to know that getting through the stressful times now is the best indicator that your family will get through any other time well as long as you all are together growing into the family that God designed you to be.  That confidence brings a peace that no stress can ever take away, which is the greatest gift a child could ever experience from their parents, deep and lasting security from being accepted and loved in the safest place on earth-their family.

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