How to Cope With Back to School Stress

  • Child Development
Cindy Hewatt

This is a year of new challenges for students and families and can lead to an increase in stress for both. An important thing for parents to remember is that our kids are often mini mirrors of ourselves. If we become stressed and anxious we can pass this on to our kids.  So first and foremost, our primary job as a parent is to be aware of and to cope, as best we can, with our own stress. This will accomplish three things, first we will just feel better and be more effective as parents and people.  Secondly, it helps model for our kids that we are aware of, and deal with our stress in healthy ways, and we can feel better. Thirdly, our kids are worried about us. Kids are always watching and they know us very well, and if we are acting differently or stressed out, they know.  So modeling self-care helps them know we are taking care of ourselves so we can take care of them.  

So what do we do?  Well, the same things that we tell our kids to do, we need to be making sure that we are doing them too.  

  • Make sure everyone is getting enough sleep, we all think better and feel better after a good night’s rest.
  • Eat healthy. When we are stressed we crave fatty, salty and sweet things.  But our bodies need healthy foods to give us sustained energy so we don’t experience sugar spikes and dips.
  • Share how you’re feeling by naming it. You don’t have to go into details about why you're feeling stressed or irritable, but you can say for example, “I was really busy at work, it was hectic and I’m feeling some stress.  I’m going to listen to some calming music as I make dinner to help me relax.” This way you're modeling acknowledging the stressor, how it made you feel and then most importantly, you model using a coping skill to manage the stress.  By setting this example you're creating a narrative that the kids can then follow when they are struggling.  You can even follow up with discussing how the music made you feel better.  
  • Increase your feeling word vocabulary.  Giving kids more options of feeling words helps them gain a better understanding of the variety of feelings they are having.  
  • Build your coping skill toolbox and help your child develop one too.  We all think better when we are calm and can forget our tools when we are stressed or frustrated. So have your child make a list where they can see their tools and refer to it when you see them having a hard time. The more we all practice our tools, the better they will work when we are really struggling.
  • Move more. Exercise is a great coping skill, it helps our body use anxious energy in a positive way and releases endorphins into our system that improve our mood.
  • Spend quality time with your kids, and they may need more reassurance and loving care right now.  They may regress in some areas and that’s normal considering the changes and stress they are under.  A child who was potty trained may have accidents, a teen who was very independent may be needier, and they will regroup and return to where they were before with the assurance you're there.  
  • Create or tighten up your daily schedule. With all the uncertainties, consistency can provide a sense of control and predictability.  A set time for homework, chores, play time, bath and meal time provide structure. Kids can help and follow the schedule.  
  • Play. So many things have changed in their lives and play is a way for children to work through things and play out alternative ways of dealing with situations.  
  • Take a break from news and social media, it can be overwhelming as we constantly get input from the world around us.  So limit time you spend on your phone, computer or TV and the time your kids are exposed to it as well.  Use this time to connect with each other instead.
  • Remember: feelings pass, stressors pass, and grades may fluctuate. Kids will do better in school when they are feeling safe, healthy and happy.  Having realistic expectations for your kid’s means that straight A’s may not be the most important thing right now.  Keeping in contact with teachers and being aware if grades slip or work isn't getting done.  This could be an indicator that your child is struggling with the material, organization and/or focus. This is the time to ask your child questions and learn what is leading to their struggles, then you can come up with a plan together to get back on track and what your child may need to be successful.  
  • Check in with your child to find out how they are feeling, use open ended questions like “what was the best part of your day” or “how are kids coping with school.” Doing this while driving in the car or making dinner makes it less intimidating for the child and maybe a smoother conversation for you both vs the eye to eye sit down that kids tend to dread. 

About the Author

Cindy Hewatt, School Counselor, LMFT

Cindy holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has been a practicing clinician for over 20 years, with almost all of that being in non-profit/alternative school settings. She has worked with children from preschool to high school and enjoys each developmental stage for its own strengths and challenges. Aspen Academy drew Cindy with its small class sizes and custom learning approach for each child. With the understanding that each child has their unique talents, strengths and struggles, it is our privilege to help each student find their best selves by providing a safe, creative and enriched environment.

Outside of school Cindy enjoys spending time with her daughter, a new Aspen Academy student, Ellie. Cindy also enjoys creating art, cooking, reading and exploring the outdoors.