9 Tips for Overcoming
Back to School Stress

Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo
9 Tips for Overcoming
  • Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD

    Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD

    Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo is a Licensed Practicing Psychologist with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Master's degree in Physical Therapy, and the authority on how to crush your inner critic so that you can live a life of purpose, fulfillment and True Success™. She’s America’s most trusted celebrity psychologist with over 100 national media interviews. She writes for Combined Insurance in an effort to help educate readers, but her medical opinions and advice are for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for visiting your doctor.

Many welcome the beginning of a new school year since it means a return to routine, regular time with friends, and a new chance to learn and grow. But for some students (and parents!), this time of year can mean more anxiety and stress due to new routines and busier schedules.

Effects of stress

Heightened and prolonged stress can adversely impact pretty much every facet of life, from strained relationships (I don’t know about you, but when I am stressed out, I am not all that pleasant to be around) to health (your immune system does not operate at its best when the body is stressed) to cognitive processing. This latter category includes components such as difficulty focusing, paying attention, learning new information and staying on task, all vital ingredients to success at school.

How do you know if your child is struggling with distress? Common symptoms can include:

·       Changes in disposition, including being more irritable or aggressive

·       Problems with sleep

·       Changes in appetite

·       Sadness or crying

·       Poor concentration

·       Procrastination or avoidance

·       Social withdrawal and/or not engage in previously enjoyed activities (despite being able to do them even in this Covid-era)

·       Physical symptoms such as exhaustion, headaches or stomach issues

If you noticed any of these symptoms in your child (or yourself!), please realize there is much you can do to make things better, even despite the uncertainly of the pandemic. Below are ten tips help you and your children best cope with back- to- school stress.

1.      Encourage communication

Proactively encourage your child to come to you if they are experiencing distress. Talk about their feelings and validate how they feel. Try to not personalize or negate what they are saying. Instead offer empathy (more about this below). If your child reaches out to you, stop and listen. Thank them for speaking with you. Don’t minimize what they are going through because, while it may not seem like a big deal in the scheme of life, it is a very big deal to them.

2.       Offer empathy

When your child is upset about something at school, the best first approach is empathy. Their causes for concern may seem trivial to you, but minimizing or negating their feelings (even though you are truly trying to help them) can cause your child to feel isolated and will decrease the likelihood that they will come to you for support.

You child may be communicating their distress outwardly (“This sucks” or “I cannot handle this”). They may also be communicating this less directly (increased irritability, isolation, avoiding schoolwork). Regardless, offer empathy by listening to them and acknowledging that this is a tough time. At the same time, remind them that you all will get through this together.

3.      Deal with uncertainty

It is human nature to be uncomfortable with uncertainty. At the same time, uncertainty is part of life (and even more so during pandemic life). Apply strategies- and teach your children how- to decrease the distress related to uncertainty.

How? Use problem and emotion-focused coping strategies.

Problem-focused coping refers to changing the situation or the problematic nature of what is happening. Examples during this era include things like taking proper precautions to keep yourself healthy (such as frequent handwashing and wearing masks when social distancing is not possible). Routines (as we will explore later) are also a great way to bring more predictability in your family’s life.

Emotion-focused coping strategies refer to taking steps to improve your emotional reaction to what is going on. This can include accepting what you can’t control, addressing your stress and focusing on the positives.

4.      Develop routines

Routines are a great way to cultivate more predictability in life. This can include a specific bedtime and awake time for you and your children. Perhaps you decide as a family to spend time together when school is over for the day, such as going for a walk. A routine may involve making dinner together as a family or enjoying a favorite show together in the evening.

5.      Focus on the positive.             

Spend time with your children focusing on feeling grateful for the positive things in their lives. And make sure you take time to have fun, such as enjoying a hobby you or your child have given up or always wanted to do. For example, in my house, my high schoolers have started painting as a fun creative outlet. Encourage your children to get off screens (some screen time is OK, but too much can increase stress) and do what they enjoy doing such as going for a bike ride or playing a game.

6.      Be kind. Rewind.

If you are stressed about what is happening in schools, you are in good company. Wanting what is best for your child, of course, makes sense for parents. At the same time, it is important to communicate in a respectful way. This means not only how you speak to others (especially those with different opinions from you) but also how you speak about them.

And if you do happen to be unkind or aggressive, take a deep breath (and some time, as needed). Then speak with your child about your outburst. Here is a script I personally have used: “I am sorry for how I spoke (to/about X). That was not being kind, and I was not acting in a way that is consistent with who I am.” Then you can problem solve out loud with your child, to get them involved in the process. “Next time I am feeling so stressed, I think it would be better for me to take a walk outside before I respond. What else could I do?”

Not only are you modeling ways to better cope with your stress, but you are also getting your child to come up with solutions. And, as we know, when we create a solution ourselves, we are more likely to use it in the future.

7.      Help others out

 Being of service to others is a great way to cultivate meaning in your life and bring about more positive feelings. How can you support others? As a family, look for ways to help out.

As a family, explore how your children can help out. For example, can they tutor a child in a younger grade on an academic area with they feel strong, such as math or language arts? Or can you, as a family, pick up groceries for a neighbor who cannot get out? Serving others helps the people you are serving AND you. It is a win-win.

8.      Turn off the news

Before the pandemic, research demonstrated that watching the news for just three minutes in the morning increases your chance of having a bad day by 27%. I can only imagine what that number is now! So, keep the news to a minimum. This includes having the news (or even morning shows) on in the background as you and your family are getting ready for your day. Instead, play some upbeat music or have a conversation.

9.      Practice self-care

Getting the sleep, nutrition, down-time and fun you need is very important – always and especially during such a stressful time. And encourage your family to do the same. Every morning, I meditate. Proactively I tell my children that I meditate to help me be the best “me” I can be. Self-care is not selfish; it is vital for optimal performance.

Self-care includes doing things throughout the day to decrease your stress. It could be getting outside in nature, taking deep breaths, taking your dog on a walk, spending time with your family, having a meaningful conversation with a friend or taking a relaxing bath.

If you or your students are feeling extra stress, remember, you are not alone. Seek assistance from friends, family members and the community as needed. Reaching out for help take a lot of courage and is NOT a sign of weakness.