Parenting: Back to School Stress

August 23, 2010

But more than simple irritation at having to return to school, some kids feel genuine apprehension, especially as they get older and prepare to make the transition to Middle School or High School. The new school may be larger, for example, meaning that most of a kid's new classmates are strangers. The anticipation of more intense class work can be a source of stress, as well as whether a child has the right clothes to fit in, at least in non-uniformed schools.

Child psychology experts like Dr. Deborah Drabick, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Temple University, say this sort of discomfort is very common, in fact, with social anxiety usually at the top of the list. "Are they going to maintain old relationships when they go to the new school?" Drabick tells "Are they going to make new friends? Are they going to fit in? That's a big part of their concerns. There are certainly academic concerns as they think about what they're going to do when they get done with high school, pressures that go along with performance. (But) I think that fitting in and finding friends that enjoy doing the same things that you do, and that you can get support from is the biggest challenge that they're going to experience."

This was certainly the case for me. I went from a small private elementary school to an enormous, mainstream high school, and it took me a couple of weeks to feel like I had a grasp of the place. At the end of the first year, there were still plenty of kids I didn't know. In fact, the strangers far outnumbered the small groups of kids I had befriended. One thing that helped was giving into my personal interests and joining school activities that felt right. For me, it was theater and performance. For others, it can be anything from a particular sport to the school newspaper, photography club, band, or any of a number of other extracurricular options. But Dr. Drabick cautions that activities should be the choice of the child, and not something they're pushed into by parents or guardians. Drabick also cautions that activities can themselves add stress to a student's life, as well as the family's life, a point that should be carefully considered. On the other hand, not all activities take up that much time, and they all count toward making friends and upping the enjoyment and familiarity with a new school.

In my series of blogs on The College Search, you'll recall I also made the point that clubs are a valuable addition to a student's high school resume when it comes time to apply for college, and they shouldn't be taken lightly. But in this blog, the point is that they can also help bridge the gap between an anxious student and new friends with common interests.

Educator Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., writing for the website, calls school clubs and activities "safe havens" for students who are trying to find their way through the middle and high school maze. "Every student body is fractured into distinct cliques," Kendrick says, "jocks, geeks, nerds, goths, preps. And while the labels may change with the times, the pressure to fit in seems eternal. Encourage your child to follow extracurricular activities based on his own interests, curiosities, and abilities." Kendrick says it's equally important that students avoid joining a certain club or activity, just because he or she thinks it will grant them automatic acceptance into a clique. If they're heart isn't really in the activity, the chances are good that the group won't be accepting, or that the members will not be the sort with whom a kid will necessarily feel comfortable.

There are a myriad of other issues, including clothing choices and academic anxiety, not to mention peer pressure. Kendrick suggests resisting the urge to criticize a child's choices, and instead whip out some old pictures of yourself in high school. "Besides giving you both a good laugh," Kendrick writes, "you can use these photos to start a discussion on how you both coped with anxieties about your appearance. Pictures can be a vivid reminder that Mom (or Dad) also struggled with these same issues."

But Temple University's Drabick adds that perhaps the best thing a parent can do as their child enters a new school is being available and willing to listen, if problems arise. "If a child is bringing up problems, you need to ask, 'What do you want me to do with this? Do you just want advice? Do you want listening? Do you want me to help you in solving this problem?'" Drabick also says it's important to keep communication lines open, even though that's not always easy with older children. She suggests identifying times of day when your child is usually the most talkative, like immediately after school, at dinner, or at bedtime. Initiate conversation as often as you can, and find out what's going on in your child's life. Also, keep in mind that talking to adolescent children can sometimes be like opening a can of worms: you may not always like the subjects they want to talk about, whether it's language, teen behavior, or more serious topics like sexuality or drugs. But Drabick says, "It's not about your emotions. It's about what your child is going through and you really want to illustrate that you're available to listen to these different things."

As for stress involving grades and doing well enough to get into college, the fear of a screw-up in freshman year dooming a kid to a terrible future is entirely unfounded. As I discussed at length in my series of blogs covering The College Search, freshman grades are not nearly as important as junior-year scores, when college admissions officers know they're getting a far more accurate representation of what a student can accomplish after high school. That's not to say that freshmen and sophomores can afford to relax entirely, but the myth that early missteps in middle school or high school can't be overcome is merely that: a myth. Students should give themselves a chance to get acclimated to the newness of the situation first, and avoid putting too much pressure on themselves too soon. For kids thinking about taking advanced class work like Honors courses, a chat with a guidance counselor prior to entering a school will lead to a lot of good information, as well as a game plan that takes a lot of the uncertainties a student might otherwise have out of play.

Despite the best intentions of kids, parents and school administrators, some children may be unable to avoid serious difficulty, and this is where mom and dad are probably the most important people in the equation. "Parents are usually the best at collecting data about their children," according to Dr. Drabick. And parents will almost always have the first opportunity to notice changes in children that can be signs of trouble. Drabick says the more serious indicators include a change in personality (unusual anger, irritability, mood swings, or a more withdrawn personality), complaints about headaches, stomach aches, or trouble sleeping. "These are all really common reactions to stress," Drabick says, and all signal a need to ask your child what's up. If you can't get to the bottom of the problem on your own, or if these symptoms don't abate relatively quickly, you need to seek advice from an expert. A great place to start is with a pediatrician, or a school counselor.

In the weeks days before school starts, think about going over an online map of the new school with your child, if they seem anxious about the unfamiliarity, and offer to drop by for a visit. Drabick says a dinner out the night before school starts might bring a more celebratory feeling to the transition. But most of all listen to your kids and encourage them to talk with you about their school experience, both the good and the bad parts. And don't hesitate to ask for advice if it looks like stress is getting the better of them.

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