Supporting children through stressful times at school is to be expected of all parents and teachers. Claire Bolge discusses how to best equip children with the skills to flourish rather than falter under pressure.
Every child encounters a variety of stressors during school — from making the transition into high school to performing their best in exams. While some stress can be healthy, too much negative stress can be harmful not only to a child’s performance at school but to their overall wellbeing and personal development. So what can parents do to ensure their child is resilient against negative stress? We look at healthy and unhealthy levels of stress, the warning signs of burnout, what parents can do to help their child cope with stressful times and the support available within the school system.
Good stress vs. bad stress
Stress is normal and something that every person experiences from time to time. “A little bit of stress is actually okay for us,” says clinical psychologist, former teacher and mother of four Sally-Anne McCormack. The stress reaction in the body can motivate us towards achieving a goal or accomplishing a task and help us handle high-pressure situations efficiently. Day-to-day stress is unavoidable – and we all have different levels of good stress that we can handle as individuals.
However, according to Ms McCormack, “there is a point where, if you’re stressed for too long, the positive effects stop benefiting you and it becomes really negative”. This is where good stress becomes bad stress and begins to outweigh the individual’s coping capacity. When we are experiencing more stress than we can handle, it can begin to cause serious problems, both mental and psychological.
Bad stress and burnout
While long-term stress is thought to cause many serious and even life-threatening health problems, the immediate reaction of prolonged negative stress is often referred to as burnout. This occurs when a person tries to deal with more stress than they can handle over a sustained period of time. According to the Women’s and Children’s Health Network, our bodies send strong signs telling us when to stop and ignoring them can be dangerous.
Symptoms of too much stress can be physical, psychological or both. Each person deals with stress differently and can experience different symptoms. Ms McCormack says these can include:
• Aggressive behaviour, panic attacks and anxiety
• Difficulty concentration and remembering
• Inability to cope and function
• Feeling depressed or sad
• Upset stomach
• Head and body aches and pains
• Blood pressure issues
• Increased sensitivity to illnesses
• Trouble sleeping
The symptoms of burnout are often similar to those of too much stress, but are additionally characterised by a lack of motivation, disengagement and detachment – having nothing left to give.
How parents can help
“Children learn what they see from us parents”, says Ms McCormack, so one of the best things parents can do is set their children a positive example of coping with stress and valuing relaxation activities. Other common coping mechanisms are things parents can often do with their child, such joining a yoga or mediation class, participating in relaxation activities at bedtime or taking time out; perhaps suggest going to a movie or watch a TV show together. Make sure they take time everyday to participate in an activity they enjoy. Help your children focus by setting up a quiet study area for them and encourage them to set realistic goals, employ strategies such as a ‘to-do’ list, get plenty of sleep and stay organised.
“Acknowledge that they know themselves best and stay supportive and interested without being an additional source of pressure,” says Ms McCormack.
Diet is also an important factor in helping to reduce and control stress levels, so serve up small, frequent meals rich in protein; Ms McCormack especially recommends eating fish three times a week to “feed the brain”, providing plenty of colourful, fresh fruit and vegies and making sure your child drinks 1-2 litres of water daily. “Stress affects the brain”, says Ms McCormack, “so we need to get it into as healthy shape as we can.” Discourage or limit the amount of caffeinated drinks consumed by older children.
Support in schools
Many high schools and primary schools now offer students counselling services to help them deal with everything from personal problems in their home or social life to exam stress. Gerard Foley, Deputy Principal and Head of The Ridgeway Campus, Ivanhoe Grammar School, says that his school provides “many options to students to discuss their needs in a safe and welcoming environment. These make certain that every student receives the support they need. Aside from psychologists based on each campus, students also have a close relationship with their homeroom teacher and have access to a chaplain at each campus who provides counselling and advice on both a formal and informal basis.”
Some students might feel self-conscious about seeking out help within their school community; Kids Helpline, Lifeline, the family doctor or a local Headspace centre or counsellor can also offer help if needed. It is important to make sure children know that stress is normal and are equipped with the knowledge that they have a strong support system and are given the skills from a young age to flourish under pressure.
Image: Ivanhoe Grammar School