Is school stressful for you and your child?

Think about something that stresses you out. Perhaps it is going to a social event, having to do a presentation at work, or even the simple act of leaving the house. Think about the amount of time you spend thinking about what may happen when you are faced with this stressor. What if it all goes wrong? What if someone sees you go through this and fail?

Now imagine that you are a child and that stressor is school. For many children, the start of school can represent the prospect of prolonged, continuous exposure to stress. The concept of stress in children has received a great deal of attention over the last few years. While stress can be adaptive and beneficial, chronic stressors can significantly affect a child's development. For example, for a child who sees school as a source of extreme anxiety, being in school for over 6 hours, 5 days a week, can result in a chronic state of stress activation. This increases the strain on a child's system, and with time, the system becomes less efficient and more prone to making mistakes. This may result in exaggerated reactions to small triggers, or significant efforts to avoid situations, such as extreme school avoidance. 

Looking at things such as stress in children is particularly important given that a reported 70% of adults with mental illness reported that problems started during childhood and adolescence. In addition, recent statistics indicate that up to 20% of school-aged youth experience some form of mental health problem. 

For those who are intimately familiar with the experience of having a child who finds school stressful, the reality is that the source of the stress can be vastly different across families and even across different children within the same family. For some students, it may be that academically they have trouble keeping pace or understanding the content; others may be terrified with fear at the thought of having to interact with peers or school authorities; and, for others, the fear may stem from a sense that the world itself is unsafe. To make matters more complicated, school may be a stressor due to other factors other than fear. This could include things such as social conflict or difficulties with emotion regulation, low mood, chronic irritability, etc.  Parents may find themselves struggling to make sense of what is happening or seeing connections between different aspects of their child’s experience. As a result, it may be difficult to know where to start in helping your child.

This is why psychological assessments are helpful and beneficial. An assessment should look at different types of information available, including how a child problem solves, reasons, processes information, and views themselves and the world around them. By looking at all of these factors, an assessment aims to provide reasons for some of the challenges as well as concrete recommendations to help alleviate the stress. The assessor’s job is to help you to understand this whole process and to makes sense of the findings. They are also there to help you to communicate the findings with all those involved with your child’s day-to-day functioning.

As a parent, there are some general things you can do to help your child.

1. Listen and support your child. This means setting aside time to have your child express his/her feelings and emotions. While it may be difficult to do so, it is important that as a parent you validate and acknowledge what the child is communicating.

2. Schedule quality time. As a family, it will be beneficial that you spend time together, such as ensuring that you eat dinner as a family. While this may be difficult to do with the competing demands on everyone’s time, its benefits outweigh any inconvenience this may cause.

3. Model appropriate behaviour. The first source of learning for children is often the family unit. Try and model appropriate behaviour and responses to your own stressors. This can include skills such as incorporating self-care or knowing how and where to request assistance from others.

If you have any questions or want additional information, do not hesitate to contact us at EPS.