Special Report - Student Stress Starts Early (cont.)

Part of this support is setting up a daily routine.

"Routines are good. They help alleviate stress," DeBord says. "Establishing a regular bedtime, get-up time, and bath time is important at any age. It also helps kids learn to develop routines themselves. Family meetings are important. At the beginning of school, set a weekly time to regroup and to talk about what's going on and how it will work: who gets the shower first, what time to set the alarm clocks for. Give everybody a chance to talk."

Communication also means helping kids learn from their mistakes.

Bryant advises letting kids know that you will help them solve the problems that can lead to misbehaving. "When kids come to expect only punishment, they are not going to tell you what they're doing. There is a balance between setting limits, being open to communicating, and punishment. Limits are different than punishment. I am all for setting limits, but punishment is too often used because parents don't recognize the stress that kids are under. They don't want to [misbehave], but they [don't yet know] how to maintain friendships and relationships with parents despite the [peer] pressure," she says.

Stress means different things at different ages. Here's a rundown on how stress affects children in elementary, middle, and high school.

Elementary School

Elementary-school kids haven't fully learned self-control. They are still honing their social skills. They're learning how to make friends, how to handle aggression, how to control their urges and emotions. If their teachers and parents don't treat these as normal developmental milestones, they can turn into sources of stress.

"Kids starting school are ready to learn -- that's why we start school at this age," DeBord says. "They should be eager and ready to learn, so building on that desire to learn is key. The enjoyment of learning comes naturally to them. Helping them build on that foundation will take them far when they start learning reading and other skills."

Signs of elementary-school stress include:

  • Fears and nightmares. "It's not the thing they fear but the fact that they are more fearful," Bryant says.Stomachaches and headaches. These kinds of complaints show that kids are stressed. "Parents are right in thinking that there is something more to it than a physical illness," Bryant says. "But it is not that the kid is just making it up. They may want to avoid something, but they are really feeling it. It may be their way of trying to cope with too much stress."

  • Negativism and lying. "One way of dealing with this is accepting the lie without exaggerating it as a problem," Bryant advises. "Say, 'It would be nice if that were the case.' You give them credit for a good idea. That can be very effective. The parent doesn't accept the lie and doesn't reject the child's feelings. It keeps the parent and child in conversation. You recognized where the lie came from -- the child really wishes it were true."

  • Withdrawal, regressive behavior, or excessive shyness. Know your child's temperament. Not all children mature at the same pace. Some children are slow to accept new things. "If you know your child angers more easily or gets more aggressive or upset than other children, help them find some kind of outlet," DeBord suggests. If your child needs to move after school, suggest an after-dinner bike ride. If he or she requires something calming, suggest listening to music.

"When you tuck your kids into bed, or at bath time, whenever there is a one-on-one time, use open ended questions and to listen," says DeBord. Kids need something concrete. Instead of saying, 'What did you do today?' ask about lunch, or what story they heard, or which friend they played with today. Say, 'Tell me where you played. Were there balls and equipment? Did you play in groups?"

Middle School

Middle-school children are passing through the doorway to adolescence. By all accounts it is a very difficult period. With so much changing, middle-school children may feel frustrated by their inability to handle situations they used to handle with ease.

"The transition to middle school is where the peer dynamics change entirely. Quite often it is a very abrupt change," Bryant says. "It can be pretty painful. In junior high, there must be a debriefing time. Our kids come home really stressed and we need to talk them down. It is a time to listen, to say, 'Yes, it is really rough and that is hard to deal with.' Give them that you hear their pain, and they are safe at home and don't have to come home to parents giving them grief."

If that sounds simple, don't be fooled. It's still important to set limits. The key is patience.

"With teens, it is like pulling teeth to get them to talk. They just want to talk to friends," DeBord notes. "Finding time to talk with teens may mean going to the mall with them. Or lying down on the pillow next to them at bedtime. Find times when they can open up. Figure out how to open those conversations."

Bryant says it's a myth that teens can't have good relationships with their parents. Both she and DeBord insist that it's crucial for adolescents to be able to talk with adults.

"What they will want to talk about will surprise you," DeBord says. "It is heavy stuff -- family problems, sexuality, world peace. It could be that what's weighing on their minds is much heavier than what we think they want to discuss."

Teens are desperate to maintain good relationships with their peers -- but they also don't want to goof up, Bryant says.

"Stay with it in a kind, supportive way," she advises. "Express confidence that they can still carry their load at home. There is no quick, easy solution. Parenting in adolescence is more time-consuming than in elementary school. They need us there with clear boundaries. They need our lives to be stable and, to them, even boring. It says to them, 'As you go have your adventures, we are stable here.'"



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