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News, Child Health | 23 days ago

Under pressure: Helping your child or teen cope with school-related stress

It’s almost time for end-of-year testing, which means your child or teen may feel more stress than usual. Dr. Rachel Wiese shares the difference between good and bad stress, how you can help your child cope, and when to seek professional support.

As the school year comes to a close and your child or teen prepares for end-of-year tests, you may notice an increase in their stress levels. It’s completely normal (and even healthy — more on that below) for kids and teens to feel nervous about tests, but too much stress can take a toll on their mental and physical health. Dr. Rachel Wiese, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children's Charlotte Pediatrics, shares the most common signs of stress in school-age children, how to help your child navigate academic anxiety and when to seek support.

Not all school-related stress is bad

First things first: Not all stress and anxiety are bad — in fact, they’re a very normal part of life.

“Sometimes school-related anxiety can be motivating,” says Wiese. “For example, math competitions, goals within a study group and getting a good grade after studying are all ‘positive anxiety’ goals.”

While it’s normal for your child to stress or worry when preparing for a big test, you don’t want them to feel constant pressure throughout the school year.

Signs of stress in school-age children

If your child is under too much pressure or exhibiting frequent signs of stress, they may experience physical and mental health symptoms.

“The signs of stress in kids and teens can be subtle,” says Wiese. “Declining grades is the most common sign, but children can often have physical complaints like abdominal pain and headache. They may also withdraw from friends they were previously close to at school.”

How to help your child handle academic stress

Wiese recommends several ways parents can help their children or teens navigate busy or stressful academic seasons:

  • Reinforce hard work vs. results. Acknowledge their hard work more than the outcome and encourage them to be happy with their efforts even if their grade isn’t an A+.
  • Give them time to process. Let your child process their school performance and share the results with you when they’re ready, rather than asking, “How was your science test? What grade did you get?”
  • Separate your love from their academic performance. It can also be helpful to demonstrate that the love you have for your child is separate from their academic performance. For example, you could say, “I love you no matter what grade you made — you did your best.”
  • Support a variety of interests. Encouraging your child to pursue a wide range of interests in and out of school is beneficial for cultivating mental well-being and resilience. Non-academic activities can include sports, clubs, music, art, charity work, volunteering and youth groups.
  • Encourage in-person friendships. Investing in true friendships is also essential for kids’ and teens’ healthy development and stress management. “Real friendships are in-person relationships where you can be your true self,” says Wiese. “These real-life friendships are better done without social media. It’s about belonging with your friends instead of changing yourself to fit in with others.”
  • Help them maintain healthy habits. Nourishing meals, regular exercise, plenty of sleep and stress management tools like mindfulness, meditation, journaling, yoga and breathing exercises are all essential to your child’s overall well-being. She says online resources that teach meditation and mindfulness techniques for kids and teens — such as Calm, Headspace and DARE — can be helpful.

 When to seek help for academic stress

 Wiese recommends talking with your child’s pediatrician or a licensed therapist if your child consistently exhibits any of the following signs of poor mental health, which may include:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Problems sleeping
  • Withdrawing from others or keeping to themselves
  • Sudden lack of communication with parents
  • Self-harm
  • Physical complaints of headache, stomachache or feeling tired

“The early identification of mental health struggles is so important in our children,” says Wiese. “Thirty to 50% of kids and teens have anxiety or depression and only 20% seek help. Of the 20% who seek help, 90% recover with therapy and medication, if needed.”

She recommends finding a therapist who works with children and teens and offers cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

“After therapy, parents can reach out to their child’s pediatrician or psychiatrist to consider medications,” she says. “However, parents must know that medications alone aren’t effective for depression and anxiety.”

While academic stress isn’t completely avoidable, there are ways you can help your child cope and live their healthiest, most fulfilling life. And if your child isn’t coping well, don’t hesitate to seek support from their pediatrician or a therapist.

Find an Atrium Health Levine Children’s pediatrician near you.