Back to School Stress in Children: Recognizing Symptoms and Healthy Coping Habits

Now that the new school year is in full swing and the excitement of the first day is over, it is not unusual for some parents to start noticing anxiety in their children. Regardless if a child is just starting Kindergarten or is a seasoned high school student, all students may experience stress from time to time. The transition from summer vacation to the academic year for a child can come with lots of exciting changes, any of which can contribute to stress.  These changes may include: a particularly challenging homework assignment, a sports event, a big test, transitioning to a new school, or issues with friends.  Children may also experience high amounts of stress which may be expressed in ways that is missed or overlooked by the adults around them. Each individual responds to stress in a different way and not everyone is stressed by the same factors. Therefore, it is important that parents and teachers are educated on the key signs and symptoms of stress in children, and are familiar with resources to help a student cope—some of these are reviewed below.

Megan Ann Williamson, MD, FAAP

Sudden Change in Behavior: If your child or student seems more irritable or moody, this may be a sign that they are feeling stressed. This “bad mood” can carry into negative self-image, negative interactions with others, and other behaviors such as crying or excessive complaining. Students may put themselves or others down, talk back to parents, or even cling to parents for attention.  Change in appetite may also be a noticeable behavior caused by stress—this may be either eating significantly less or significantly more.  Parents and teachers should watch for these behaviors in the children that they interact with and intervene if necessary.

Sickness: If a child or student makes several trips to the nurse complaining of stomach pains or headache, this is possibly a sign of high stress. Students will often do this before a big test or other school obligation because of the high levels of stress they associate with the task. If your child mentions headaches or stomach aches frequently, note when they mention it and if these symptoms could relate to a high stress situation.

Loss of Interest: A child who experiences high amounts of stress may all of a sudden lose interest in things that they once enjoyed—such as a sport or other hobby. If your child is suddenly not interested in doing activities or tends to stay in their room, this may be a sign that they are coping with their stress in an unhealthy way.

If your child or student is displaying any of these symptoms, here are some ways to potentially help the situation.

Listen: It is important to start a conversation with a child who is experiencing stress. Keeping an open mind and having the child direct the conversation is crucial in uncovering issues. Ask simple, open-ended, questions like “How was school today?” or “Why do you feel like this?” These questions may help to discover the root of the problem.

Cheer them Up: If your child is experiencing high stress, try to create situations that make them happy. Sometimes a short respite is the perfect antidote for minor stressors. For example: cook their favorite meal, go to their favorite restaurant, or spend quality time doing something that they enjoy. This can help clear the child’s mind instead of having them focus on what is stressing them at the moment.

Seek other resources: Everyone feels stressed from time to time. However, if your child’s stress seems to be more long-lasting, starts to interfere with daily activities and sleep, or if your child becomes depressed, or expresses self-harm, it is important to get professional help. A school counselor, school psychologist, or a mental health expert can help get to the root of your child’s stress and anxiety and develop a plan for coping if necessary.

Megan A. Williamson, MD, FAAP, is a Pediatrician with Children’s Regional Hospital at Cooper. For more information on general pediatric care at Cooper, including our team and locations, click here.

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