Your Child and Anxiety: School Stress Starts Early

Student Stress Starts Early. The Problem: Premature Pressure by Parents, Peers

Medically Reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty, MD on March 01, 2007
9 min read

Call it pressure. Call it great expectations. Whatever its name the result is the same: school stress.

It starts as soon as kindergarten. It turns play into competitive sport. It turns the joy of learning into a struggle to excel. It turns friends into social connections and charitable acts into a line on a resume.

In his 31 years of teaching, Richard L. Hall, PhD, has never seen a more stressful time. Hall is assistant headmaster of Atlanta's Lovett School, which enrolls some 1,500 students from pre-kindergarten through high school.

"It can be overwhelming," Hall tells WebMD. "Students are put in a position of feeling they just must not stop. They are not given a sense of support. They are put in an environment where they are not accepted for themselves but only for what they are going to achieve. All this builds stress."

Stress itself is not a bad thing, says child psychologist Brenda Bryant, PhD, professor of human development at University of California, Davis.

"You are not really truly alive without stress," she tells WebMD. "Being challenged makes you learn new things and keeps your brain functioning. In all the major theories of learning, there is stress. But if stress is really interfering with development, that is a problem. Sometimes with too much stress kids get immobilized."

It's a fine line for a parent to walk. On the one hand, a child needs age-appropriate limits and guidance. On the other hand, parents often refuse to let the learning process run its course.

"We don't need to apply pressure to get kids to perform," says Karen DeBord, PhD, a child development specialist for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. "Building on children's inner motivations is most important. Instead of paying kids a dollar for an 'A,' tell them how proud you are of them -- and say, 'aren't you proud of yourself?' If they perform only for our reward, that is not the greatest thing to teach them. That makes them like the people who come to work just for the money, and always complain about the job. Who could be more of a drag to be around?"

Hall says it's just not fair for parents to demand higher standard for their kids than they themselves face.

"Parents are too often very preoccupied with seeing their children succeed and intolerant of anything other than excellence," he says. "We as schools and we as parents need to remind ourselves that sustained excellence is not natural. It is not how we, ourselves, operate."

If a child is incapacitated by stress, it may be necessary for the family to seek professional help from a child psychologist or child psychiatrist. But with stress as with so much else, prevention is the key.

Here's everything you need to know about keeping healthy stress from becoming distress:

    • Spend time with your children.
    • Give your kids a stable home environment. Negotiate home rules -- including consequences for rule breaking -- and stick to these rules.
    • Monitor their eating habits.
    • Don't just talk to your kids. Communicate with them. When children misbehave -- and they will -- try to understand their behavior instead of merely punishing it.

"Listen to your young person," Hall says. "Acknowledge and accept his or her needs. Know that school is a long-term process. One immediate success or failure is not going to determine a child's life. Growth will happen. We parents can and must learn to accept that growth -- and the fact that it is going to be unpredictable. What we can do is show constant love and support and presence. That is the most important message: that we are there, and that we love them and support them."

Part of this support is setting up a daily routine.

"Routines are good. They help alleviate stress," DeBord says. "Establishing a regular bedtime, get-up time, and bath time is important at any age. It also helps kids learn to develop routines themselves. Family meetings are important. At the beginning of school, set a weekly time to regroup and to talk about what's going on and how it will work: who gets the shower first, what time to set the alarm clocks for. Give everybody a chance to talk."

Communication also means helping kids learn from their mistakes.

Bryant advises letting kids know that you will help them solve the problems that can lead to misbehaving. "When kids come to expect only punishment, they are not going to tell you what they're doing. There is a balance between setting limits, being open to communicating, and punishment. Limits are different than punishment. I am all for setting limits, but punishment is too often used because parents don't recognize the stress that kids are under. They don't want to [misbehave], but they [don't yet know] how to maintain friendships and relationships with parents despite the [peer] pressure," she says.

Stress means different things at different ages. Here's a rundown on how stress affects children in elementary, middle, and high school.

Elementary-school kids haven't fully learned self-control. They are still honing their social skills. They're learning how to make friends, how to handle aggression, how to control their urges and emotions. If their teachers and parents don't treat these as normal developmental milestones, they can turn into sources of stress.

"Kids starting school are ready to learn -- that's why we start school at this age," DeBord says. "They should be eager and ready to learn, so building on that desire to learn is key. The enjoyment of learning comes naturally to them. Helping them build on that foundation will take them far when they start learning reading and other skills."

Signs of elementary-school stress include:

  • Fears and nightmares. "It's not the thing they fear but the fact that they are more fearful," Bryant says.Stomachaches and headaches. These kinds of complaints show that kids are stressed. "Parents are right in thinking that there is something more to it than a physical illness," Bryant says. "But it is not that the kid is just making it up. They may want to avoid something, but they are really feeling it. It may be their way of trying to cope with too much stress."
  • Negativism and lying. "One way of dealing with this is accepting the lie without exaggerating it as a problem," Bryant advises. "Say, 'It would be nice if that were the case.' You give them credit for a good idea. That can be very effective. The parent doesn't accept the lie and doesn't reject the child's feelings. It keeps the parent and child in conversation. You recognized where the lie came from -- the child really wishes it were true."
  • Withdrawal, regressive behavior, or excessive shyness. Know your child's temperament. Not all children mature at the same pace. Some children are slow to accept new things. "If you know your child angers more easily or gets more aggressive or upset than other children, help them find some kind of outlet," DeBord suggests. If your child needs to move after school, suggest an after-dinner bike ride. If they require something calming, suggest listening to music.

"When you tuck your kids into bed, or at bath time, whenever there is a one-on-one time, use open ended questions and to listen," says DeBord. Kids need something concrete. Instead of saying, 'What did you do today?' ask about lunch, or what story they heard, or which friend they played with today. Say, 'Tell me where you played. Were there balls and equipment? Did you play in groups?"

Middle-school children are passing through the doorway to adolescence. By all accounts it is a very difficult period. With so much changing, middle-school children may feel frustrated by their inability to handle situations they used to handle with ease.

"The transition to middle school is where the peer dynamics change entirely. Quite often it is a very abrupt change," Bryant says. "It can be pretty painful. In junior high, there must be a debriefing time. Our kids come home really stressed and we need to talk them down. It is a time to listen, to say, 'Yes, it is really rough and that is hard to deal with.' Give them that you hear their pain, and they are safe at home and don't have to come home to parents giving them grief."

If that sounds simple, don't be fooled. It's still important to set limits. The key is patience.

"With teens, it is like pulling teeth to get them to talk. They just want to talk to friends," DeBord notes. "Finding time to talk with teens may mean going to the mall with them. Or lying down on the pillow next to them at bedtime. Find times when they can open up. Figure out how to open those conversations."

Bryant says it's a myth that teens can't have good relationships with their parents. Both DeBord and she insist that it's crucial for adolescents to be able to talk with adults.

"What they will want to talk about will surprise you," DeBord says. "It is heavy stuff -- family problems, sexuality, world peace. It could be that what's weighing on their minds is much heavier than what we think they want to discuss."

Teens are desperate to maintain good relationships with their peers -- but they also don't want to goof up, Bryant says.

"Stay with it in a kind, supportive way," she advises. "Express confidence that they can still carry their load at home. There is no quick, easy solution. Parenting in adolescence is more time-consuming than in elementary school. They need us there with clear boundaries. They need our lives to be stable and, to them, even boring. It says to them, 'As you go have your adventures, we are stable here.'"

A major problem for many high-school students is their parent's single-minded devotion to getting them accepted by what their parents consider the best college.

"High-school students are very conscious of the need to present a profile to prospective colleges," Hall says. "They are told this by their counselors, by teachers, by their parents. It is a very intense focus. It is not just having good grades but it is taking part in significant extracurricular activities and even community service."

As in younger children, this stress can show up in poor grades and contrary behaviors. Older teens also often respond to stress by developing eating disorders or problems with alcohol/drug abuse. Know the signs and be prepared to address them.

"Look for a change in grade status, in attendance, tardiness, lack of responsiveness in the classroom or at home," says Hall. "Look for withdrawal into solitude or into one single contrary activity such as adopting strange music or a strange culture. Look for overuse or indulgence in the Internet, especially inordinate time spent in chat rooms. Any way a student might withdraw from normal exchange and enjoyment of other people can signal a problem."

The solution?

"As simple and trite as this may sound, we don't spend enough time being with and loving our children," Hall says.

As teens get older, parents become coaches rather than directors. The basics of communication, presence, and structure still apply. This is very important, especially as teens get their drivers' licenses and can go places you don't know about. A parent must give up some control -- which means that monitoring the child is more important than ever.

"When they are little we hope we have taught them to choose the right sock color. When they are older, we hope we have raised them to make decisions on how to be safe," DeBord says. "Teens are risk takers. As parents, our job is to monitor where they are and who they are with -- not in a hovering sense, but by checking in. There is a set checking-in time. And you still do have parameters on times they are coming in. This should take place on more of an adult level: you tell them where you are, and they tell you."