The start of the presentation was less than an hour away, and my son was feeling stressed.
He and his team had spent months preparing their STEM project, and competition day had finally arrived. He paced the hallway as he ran through his lines for what seemed like the 1,000th time, stopping every so often to check the clock. He smiled nervously as his team piled into the presentation room. Then, it was show time.
What my son experienced both before and during his presentation could be called “normal” stress. It’s that adrenaline-pumping, nervous excitement we feel when we have to do something that is perhaps outside our comfort zone or for which the outcome matters to us.
“Stress creates energy, which can be really helpful. It can be a motivating force for people. If you’re stressed about something, you’re more inclined to push through to get things done,” said Dana Pierce, school counselor at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, Manlius, NY.
Stress that is chronic and debilitating is more serious, Pierce said. “That’s when instead of making you focus more, stress decreases your ability to focus.”
Lynn Kaminsky, school counselor at O’Rourke Middle School in Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District, Glenville, NY, said there is no shortage of factors that contribute to students feeling stressed in their everyday lives. Common stressors include a lot of homework, tests, pressure to do well academically, athletically, musically; peer pressure, social media influences, the death of a family member or pet. The list is seemingly endless.
Pierce said information overload can also cause increased stress levels.
“It used to be really clear to us what information was important, and there was limited information available about everything,” she said. “Now, we’re constantly bombarded with information. Technology can be a wonderful thing, but I’m not sure we’re doing a good job rolling it out from a child development perspective.”
While stress may be part of everyday life for our children, school counselors agree that schools and parents can both play a role in helping kids learn to cope with stress. Sometimes that means being available to listen as a child works through an issue; other times it can be by sharing coping mechanisms or modeling a healthy lifestyle.
“You want kids to be successful, achieve goals and become productive,” said Pierce. “When you give them outlets and tools, they’re much more likely to get there.”
Some schools have targeted stress management programs, such as the one Kaminsky conducts for Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake sixth graders.
“We talk about ‘attacking’ stress, the idea that if you just get through it and don’t do anything differently, you will probably continue to experience the same stressful situation,” she said.
Kaminsky asks students to review various scenarios to determine if a situation is something they could avoid or if they would have to adapt or adjust their behavior to handle it.
An example of a situation that a student can avoid is turning in school work late or being late for school, she said. Situations they can’t avoid include having a class with a teacher that they don’t care for, a “bothersome” sibling or parents’ divorce.
Kaminsky also talks to students about healthy and unhealthy reactions to stressful situations.
Unhealthy responses can include ignoring a situation, procrastinating or using substances such as cigarettes, drugs or alcohol to reduce the stress. “An unhealthy reaction will generally increase stress,” she said.
Healthy reactions help to decrease stress. “Instead of ignoring feelings of being overwhelmed you would examine what it is that overwhelms you and target the situation,” she said. For example, a student facing a difficult test could set up a study time with a partner; a student unsure about what is expected on an assignment could ask for extra help from a teacher.
Faculty at Fayetteville-Manlius High School decided to take a whole-school approach to stress by holding a wellness day in January.
Last year, Pierce said she and colleagues began to notice an increase in the number of high school students struggling with anxiety and stress.
“We wanted to support students in ways that would allow them to achieve their goals but also honor a need for balance, good health and good care for those really struggling with anxiety,” she said.
A half day at the end of the second marking period provided the opportunity to host a well-timed wellness day. The goal was to show students healthy ways to manage stress. High school students chose from an array of activities ranging from knitting and badminton to coloring and salsa dancing.
Pierce said students loved doing fun, interesting or calming activities with friends and teachers, with no pressure about grades or tests. “The day accomplished what we wanted. The students were energized and not stressed about heading into the next semester.”
Parents/caregivers play an important role
The counselors said one of the most important things parents can do to help children manage stress well is to listen.
“Parents matter to their kids. I think parents forget that when their kids are teenagers and are pushing up against them,” said Pierce. “Kids’ relationships with their parents is primary. Even when they’re pushing back, they’re listening.”
Pierce suggested parents encourage and model balance in life. “Have open conversations about what it means to be successful. What does it look like and how do you get there?”
Kaminsky said a good approach for parents is to work with a child to discover strategies and solutions to deal with stress — rather than prescribe what the parent thinks is the best course to reducing stress.
“In some instances, a child’s stress reactions are increased by not having had the opportunity to work through difficult situations along the way, building their coping skills,” said Kaminsky. “The goal is to lessen stress while building skills and confidence.”
It’s also important to understand that children are often hyperaware of what is happening around them.
“Children often know more about what is going on than parents think,” said Kaminsky. “It is important for parents to communicate with their children and to keep the information at an age appropriate level, without unnecessary details. Kids, like adults, will draw conclusions from bits and pieces of what they ‘overhear,’ and they usually will think the worst.”
Pierce said it’s important for students and parents to understand they’re not alone.
“I’ve worked with a lot of students who have had very similar experiences,” she said. “The difficulty, particularly with debilitating anxiety, is there’s almost always a sense of shame about it. ‘This is irrational and yet it’s terrifying,’ they think.”
The key, she said, is to know that anxiety can be treated and things can get better.
“If we can put a little light into the situation with some good information and some good care, that can be really helpful,” said Pierce.
Pierce and Kaminsky both suggested school counselors can be a good resource for students and their parents.
“Stressors between the parent and child are great examples of when a school counselor can add fresh perspective,” said Kaminsky.
Signs to watch for that indicate stress has reached an overwhelming level include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in eating patterns
- Refusing to go to school
- Upset when talking about school
View HelpGuide.org for additional Symptoms, Causes and Effects.
- From Hey Sigmond: 18 Things Kids With Anxiety Need to Know.
- American Psychological Association offers helpful information in Teen and Stress: How to keep stress in check.
- With state tests on the horizon, Overcoming Test Anxiety provides tips on a healthy approach to test-taking.
Karen Nerney, a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011, has three children who, at 20, 18 and 11 years old, are developing a renewed appreciation for coloring.