The end of summer sneaks up on you, bringing with it many transitions for the family. Lunches to pack, out the door early for school buses, and new routines to get used to—all while juggling work schedules. It's enough to make any parent feel a heightened sense of stress.
But going back to school can cause student stress for kiddos too. They may worry about making friends, doing well in classes or fitting in with a new group of classmates.
We all want to foster resilience in our children, so teaching them how to cope with this stress in a healthy way is essential. That’s why Preeti Parikh, MD, board-certified practicing pediatrician in New York City and executive medical director for GoodRx, recommends that parents put together a back-to-school stress toolkit to help their kids get through the first few weeks of school (and the plus side is you can use it throughout the year when things feel difficult).
It's completely normal for kids to feel anxious or stressed about a new school year
New classroom, new teacher and for some, a brand new campus. All of this, plus learning and juggling social schedules, can be a lot for young minds to handle.
"Starting in a new school or classroom is naturally a stressful experience for kids," Dr. Parikh shares. But school also provides the opportunity for major social-emotional growth. "By helping kids learn how to overcome a stressful event, you will advance their developmental growth."
But kids, especially young ones, don't always have the vocabulary or ability to share how they feel. Instead, stress can look a little different. Dr. Parikh notes that parents should be on the lookout for changes in eating or sleeping habits, tummy aches with no apparent physical cause or irritability. "They may be more clingy or ask a lot of questions about what the school year will look like."
While it's hard for a child to link physical complaints and stress, parents can help by normalizing their child's experiences and reactions.
A back-to-school stress toolkit can give your child tools to cope with the transition
A stress toolkit isn't necessarily a basket of physical tools. It's a set of emotional or communicative skills to help kids cope with anxiety and stress. As much as we'd like to keep our children in a bubble protecting them from the outside world, it's just not realistic—nor is it healthy.
"Not all stressful emotions are bad," Dr. Parikh shares. "Dealing with stress is an important step in emotional growth; learning to identify, manage and bounce back from stress can motivate a child to succeed academically or compete in sports."
Think of your back-to-school stress toolkit as an emotional support system your child (or you) can take anywhere, and you can continue to build upon these skills as they get older.
Toolkits provide a foundation to start a conversation about stress, how to identify it and how to manage it in a healthy way. "By preparing a back-to-school stress toolkit, you can better help your child manage stress," Dr. Parikh shares. She says parents and children can practice trying different techniques to find what works best for them, depending on the situation.
6 skills to include in your back-to-school stress toolkit
1. Start with a conversation
The first step is to talk about stress and what it feels like. "Label and name their feelings to increase their emotional vocabulary and reinforce that they can feel more than one emotion at a time," says Dr. Parikh.
Young children may benefit from books that use illustrations to talk about a range of emotions. Reading a book together can help open a conversation if your child doesn't have the words to express their feelings.
2. Encourage your child to notice how stress affects their body
"Notice body sensations that are attached to different emotions and provide clues for what they are feeling," shares Dr. Parikh. She notes that some kids notice physical sensations first, so they can start to connect the dots between how they feel and why.
3. Rate emotions on a scale of one to 10
Help your child understand that it's OK to feel big feelings, and emotions will pass. Dr. Parikh says this practice can help children understand that emotions can range in intensity and affect us differently.
4. Try relaxation skills like paced breathing
Try this simple box breathing exercise: have your child breathe in for a count of four, hold their breath for four counts, exhale for a count of four, and repeat.
5. Redirect stressful thoughts
"By explaining that thoughts are oftentimes temporary feelings that are not always facts, we can help them shift unhelpful thoughts to more realistic or helpful ones.”
You can even try giving the feeling a name like the "worry monster" or the "stress dragon” and refer to it when your child is feeling overwhelmed.
6. Introduce mindfulness
Mindfulness, the practice of staying present and observing in a non-judgmental way, is a skill that only becomes more valuable as your child gets older. "Ask them to observe, describe and participate," Dr. Parikh advises, using the following three steps:
- Observe: Tell them to notice what is happening in their environment or body without saying anything aloud.
- Describe: Ask them to name what they notice using descriptive and non-judgmental language.
- Participate: Encourage them to throw themselves fully into an activity or experience.
A note from Motherly
If you are concerned that your child seems really stressed or anxious, or if you notice physical symptoms that continue like fast heartbeat, irritability, mood changes, or stomach pains, Dr. Parikh says it's important to chat with your pediatrician.
"Your pediatrician can be a great team member to help identify symptoms of stress your child may be exhibiting and ways to help your child deal with the stress," she says.
Stressful situations are a part of life, but connecting with your child using these tips can help both of you learn and grow throughout the school year.
Dr. Preeti Parikh is a board-certified practicing pediatrician in New York City (Westside Pediatrics), executive medical director at GoodRx, assistant clinical professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson.