School admission exams or the HSC, drama or music performances, sports competitions… these are all important moments in your child’s school life, but they will also create pressure.
Sometimes the pressure is real, but at times it can be unnecessary, excessive or even self-imposed. Stress can also be contagious. School teachers are familiar with the experience of watching a year group go down with stress like a set of dominoes.
As a parent, it’s important to know when to step in to help and when to step back and give them space. You may have to overcome your urge to intervene and protect them. Yes, your child may be under stress, but rather than remove the pressure, it’s better to teach her how to deal with it. Learning how to manage expectations and stress can help children build resilience. That may mean teaching your child how to distinguish between reasonable levels of stress and disproportionate anxiety.
Understanding how kids really feel
It’s important that children have the language to express how they are feeling to you and to themselves. Using the correct vocabulary to explain their thoughts and emotions helps them to avoid exaggerating or feeling overwhelmed.
Rather than just saying, “I feel stressed,” teach your children to link their emotion to a trigger.
If they learn to say, “I feel stressed about my piano competition on Saturday,” they are reminding themselves that their feelings of stress are attached to a specific event and are therefore finite.
Expanding their vocabulary can also help them explain more precisely how they feel. Often, young people (and particularly teenagers) overuse terms like “stress” when what they may want to express is that they are “apprehensive” or “troubled” or “frightened”.
Using the precise language to describe how they feel also helps you and their teachers to support them. The Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence has developed an app, called Mood Meter, which enables young people (it is more appropriate for teenagers than younger children) to log their emotions daily. The app helps them to expand their emotional vocabulary, better understand their responses to daily events and regulate their feelings.
When the stress is real
Sometimes, it’s understandable that your child is feeling a bit stressed. In this case, it is important that you as a family ensure there’s little disruption to his usual daily behaviour. Your child needs to be sleeping, eating and exercising as normal. Not only is it essential to maintain good health, it is also important to maintain routine in order to teach kids how to absorb and manage periods of stress without over-reacting or losing perspective.
Some students will find meditation valuable to help them find balance. If that is the case, it is more valuable as a regular practice than as a response to crisis.
Balance is a family affair
It is very difficult, as a parent, to advocate for balance and calm if you’re also demonstrating signs of stress. I have found that some stressed students are largely modelling themselves on their parents and their response to stress.
I recommend a family approach to balance. That means regular opportunities to eat together, a regular and shared lights-out policy and exercising together. Go for a family bike ride or hike, or even just go for a walk together around the neighbourhood. You shouldn’t abandon all fun activities just because there’s a lot going on.
The power of communication
I will never forget my mother dragging me out of my bedroom when I was deep in HSC panic and taking me for a sly ice-cream – it was a fabulous circuit-breaker. It also meant that we had a chance to talk while we ate.
When children are under stress, they are more likely to shut down, so make sure that you open up the lines of communication.
Listen without judgement but don’t subjugate your own needs. We don’t want to turn our stressed children into tyrants! They may be doing the HSC, but they still have to empty the dishwasher and tidy their rooms.
Remember, it’s possible that your child believes that her performance is more important to you than it actually is. You may think it’s a given, but there is much to be said for telling your child regularly that you will love her no matter what grades she gets, whether she gets a prize, how fast she runs, etc…
Finally, if you think that your child is becoming unusually withdrawn or you are seeing changes in eating, sleeping and/or social behaviour, it may be a good idea to make an appointment with your GP.