By Deborah Dobbs, Beka Mullins and Carrie Leafblad | Contributors
Experiencing (or enduring) big life events means we’re living life rather than just observing it. Big life events, good or bad, also bring stress. Our bodies tend to react the same way to a big positive change, like marriage or a baby, as they do to a big negative change, like a divorce or a job loss. Our level of emotional intelligence and coping skills may help or hinder our ability to recognize symptoms of stress.
Naturally, the younger you are, the harder it might be to adjust smoothly to life’s transitions. Regardless of our age, we’ll do what we think helps us cope, but it’s not always the healthiest choice. Whether your kiddo is starting kindergarten or your teen is venturing off to college, each school year brings new challenges and requires adjustments. Here you’ll find common signs of stress and some tips for helping your kids cope.
Advice for Elementary Students
Grit, positivity, faith, past experiences, and our overall mental health help determine how we cope with life adjustments. Having tools for coping with change and big feelings allows children to be more successful during transitional periods. Emotional intelligence is taught through observation and practice; therefore, it is important to provide kids with the space to develop these skills. Regarding change, children develop emotional intelligence by having the opportunity to discuss expectations and possibilities of a life transition. They need time to adapt to the concept of change before they can accept it. Children with a negative and fearful perspective tend to struggle a lot more with change than children who are more laid back, positive, and easy going. Knowing your kids becomes an essential part of the equation because you must allow more time for the child with a negative perspective to adapt to change.
Warning signs with young children can be vastly different and, therefore, difficult to notice. Young children often do not have the words to express their needs and wants and often struggle to tell adults what is going on in their minds. It is our job as parents to help our children develop the necessary language for emotional health. If a child doesn’t have a way to verbally express what is going on, it will come out in different ways. Usually, children will have some sort of physical response since their motor skills are more developed than their verbal skills. Children will withdraw, bed wet, act out in school, become violent with self or others, etc.
• Provide children with the space to decompress and emote the best way they know how. Children will use play and art to express their feelings or to simply decompress. Giving your child this time and space to emote is important because once they decompress, they are more apt to talk about their feelings.
• Allow your children the space and time to be able to adapt and accept the process of change.
• Talk to your children and give them the opportunity to voice their fears, worries, and concerns. Listen to them, don’t just brush them off, and give them the ability to feel safe and secure with the adjustment.
• Stay positive, be honest with them, and help them to see that change is normal, not scary.
Advice for Middle School Students
Middle school entails mind-blowing changes. It seems like everything is changing—schedules, social status, expectations. Tweens experience hormonal changes, however, the more important thing to remember, especially when it comes to strange and even unpredictable behavior, is that their brains are still developing. Middle school is a time when kids have to make many decisions, yet the part of the brain that makes these decisions is still developing. It’s kind of like running a marathon with a sprained ankle.
Often the red flags for stress are common behaviors displayed by most adolescents! Just as it is with younger children, it’s hard to tell if your tween is struggling at a normal level or feeling overwhelmed. However, trust your instincts and watch for major changes in behavior. Your overwhelmed middle schooler may withdraw from family and friends, lose interest in hobbies, or begin to lie to avoid dealing with a stressful situation. They may also have physical responses to stress like stomachaches or headaches or you may notice sudden outbursts of anger or crying.
• Listen. Really listen. This is a time when pre-teens are starting to look to their peers for advice and support. Seize those opportunities for conversations with your tween. Do less talking and more listening. At this stage, many kids can sort through their own stuff. Try not to play the role of the fixer, for the mistakes they make usually have consequences from which they can recover.
• Offer consistency. Especially during the early partof middle school, there’s so much change that it’s comforting to come home and have things consistent. Having a meal two to three times together each week has many benefits. Your tween may act like he doesn’t want to do this with you, but it’s a good habit. And it can provide comfort when the school environment feels stormy.
• Limit technology. We cannot stress this enough. If you allow your tween to take a phone to school, consider installing one of the parent apps that places restrictions on the use. Shut it down during class times, so they can focus. Schools provide the technology for kids to access what they need online. Consider a technology contract with your child for use at home and at school, so there’s nothing ambiguous about the rules or the consequences.
• Normalize. Don’t minimize. If your pre-teen shares her struggles with you, assure her that what she is feeling is normal. Try not to compare your own tween years with hers though. While some challenges of adolescence are timeless, her world is vastly different from yours. Imagine being a kid and every faux pas you made, every breakup you had could go viral. With some kids, if you imply that you really “get it,” (even if you do), you shut down the conversation.
Advice for High School Students
High school can be both an exciting and stressful time as students prepare for the adult world while still being considered kids in many settings. They are challenged with the task of making what feels like make-or-break, life-altering decisions. What type of person do I want to be? What career do I want to have? How am I supposed to act around someone I want to date? Add to that a full schedule of extracurricular activities, a part-time job, school assignments, and friendships, and you can quickly see why the transition to high school can be overwhelming for many students.
Warning signs for stress in teens can vary widely depending on a teen’s personality. Some students when stressed will become withdrawn, while others will pour themselves into their tasks with little room for fun or rest. Watch for sudden changes in eating and sleeping habits, friend groups, or in their attitude. Like adults, when adolescents are stressed, they can become combative or sink into negativity. Grades can also suffer as teens struggle to concentrate while their brain is in survival mode. In the absence of a one-size-fits-all description of stress overload, you have to rely on your knowledge of your kids. As much as possible, maintain an open line of communication, let them know that failure and stress are a normal part of life, and regularly check in even when the standard response is “I’m fine.”
• Remain consistent with family time. This can be incredibly difficult, especially if there is more than one teen in the home. However, consistent time with family gives teens a sense of safety and belonging, which can be an anchor in the unpredictable world of teen friendships.
• Offer your support. Your teens need to know that they have a stable, supportive foundation that they are launching from. Let them know that you believe in them and are there if they need you. Resist the urge to immediately try to fix the situation or criticize (even if you’re panicking on the inside!).
• Encourage them to establish healthy eating and sleeping routines. Sleep and a healthy diet are essential for dealing with stress. Teens are notoriously lacking in both!
• Teach your teen to unplug from technology. Talk about the positives and negatives of technology and work together to establish healthy boundaries. Then model it in your own life.
Advice for College Students
At this point, your “children” are now legal adults. You can’t do much intervention anymore. You can’t call the university and talk about your concerns with a professor. You can’t make appointments for them with their doctor or counselor. By now, hopefully your son or daughter has learned the skills needed to cope with this transition in a healthy way. Nevertheless, they are experiencing more independence and responsibility than ever before, and it can be overwhelming.
Warning signs become harder to spot as your children gets older, especially if they no longer live under your roof. However, there are several things to watch for. People who are not coping well with stress often respond with extreme behavior. For a college student, this could look like avoiding the problem by partying or through extracurricular activities, withdrawing, or becoming intensely focused on performing academically or athletically. They may become unusually negative or overly positive in their conversations. Watch for signs of depression including changes in sleep patterns, loss of interest in hobbies, and decreased energy. Students struggling with depression may stop going to class and begin making comments about feeling hopeless, like things will never get better.
• Help your young adult find out what resources are available. Every college campus provides academic and mental health services or referrals for their students. Because your children are now legal adults, you cannot request services on their behalf, but you can encourage them to take advantage of the resources available to them.
• Normalize. College students are learning a whole new world as they enter this next stage of adulthood. They’ll have another head spinning transition when they graduate college. Remind them that it’s normal to struggle, that a failing grade isn’t the end of the world, and they’re not alone.
• Become acquainted with their roommates or good friends. They are likely to be the first people who will notice if something is wrong. This is not an excuse to insert yourself into your kid’s social life. Boundaries are important here. But if given the opportunity, introduce yourself and let their friends know they can contact you if anything comes up.
• Reach out. It’s a fine balance between smothering and supporting. If the stress level reaches a point where your kid is no longer able to function at school, they may need you to take a more active support role until they can get back on their feet. Otherwise, let them continue to develop the grit they need to be successful while you cheer them on from the sideline.
Editor’s Note: The Counseling Place is a nonprofit agency providing affordable, professional, and education services and counseling. Reach Executive Director, Deborah Dobbs, at 469.283.0242 or couselingplace.org.