7 Tips to Help Your Child Work Through Feeling Overwhelmed
The first weeks back-to-school are a shock to everyone’s system. The anxious and eager anticipation of day 1 is quickly replaced by the daunting realization that over eight months of school remain. The novelty of a new school year wears off concurrently with increasing academic demands. The first projects are assigned, the first quizzes given, the first disagreements among friends occur. Fortunately, for most children this stage is temporary, and there is plenty parents can do to support their child.
1. Observe and Communicate
Take note of any changes in behavior or temperament. Be on the lookout for excessive negativity or complaining. If something seems "off", look for opportunities to open-up communication. Oftentimes, when questioned directly, kids will shrug and say that they're fine. Avoid "yes" or "no" questions and work to get them to describe their experiences. If your child shuts down your attempts at open dialgoue, change tactics. Try to get them talking while taking part in an activity you mutually enjoy. Go shoot baskets, catch ice cream after a movie, go to a sporting event, paint a picture...whatever it is your child enjoys. Validate their feelings while preventing yourself from becoming tangled up in them. Most importantly, objectively listen as if you are a behavioral detective. Try to determine the root of your child's behavior.
What kids verbalize is not always the underlying cause of their behavior. In fact, it rarely is. Every year, I see a similar scenario play out. A student, say "Jane Doe", goes home and tells mom and dad that her math teacher is "stupid and mean." Jane provides no concrete examples of the teacher being mean or unkind but speaks with contempt and hyperbole. It is clear that her emotions are powerful and deeply rooted. Her parents request her class be changed so that she no longer interacts with this particular teacher. Before manipulating her schedule, the principal suggests a conference with the teacher to gain clarity and consider other possibilities (see #2). The conference proves fruitful. It turns out that Jane is having, for the first time ever, difficulty understanding math concepts. What was previously a favorite subject and source of pride is now souring her whole perspective on school. She feels embarrassed and unsure of herself. The team (Jane, her math teacher, parents and other school staff) puts into place some simple strategies to provide more support. They move her seat away from a few distracting students and make an accommodation for her to get extra math help after school. Jane's math teacher also agrees to reconvene in a few weeks to discuss her progress. This is an ideal outcome. The team worked cooperatively, Jane received the academic support she needed, and the adults in her life modeled proactive problem solving based upon open communication.
2. Keep the School in the Loop:
The previous example highlights the importance of a team approach in supporting children in school. If your child is feeling overwhelmed, a quick email giving his/her teachers a heads-up is greatly appreciated (really, it is!). By alerting them, the school staff now has the ability to be your ”your eyes and ears” for much of your child’s day. This opens lines of communication and enlists the school team in supporting the social and emotional needs of your child. Consider setting up a meeting or phone conference with the school team to enlist their support.
3. Help Your Child Practice Self-Care:
The importance of self-care cannot be overstated. Healthy food, adequate sleep, spending time outdoors, and physical activity all do wonders for people's mood and mental performance. These relatively simple things will give your child the mental and physical energy (s)he will need to cope and adjust. Remember that children, as the reach adolescence, need upwards of 9 quality hours of sleep! Make self-care a non-negotiable part of your, and your child’s day.
4. Model Your Own Wellness Practices:
Kids watch and observe EVERYTHING. Make sure that they see you practicing what you preach. Show them how you manage feeling overwhelmed and speak openly about it. Tell them when you had a tough day at work and then model going for a walk, meditating, journaling…whatever works for you. Actions speak louder than words. This is an incredible opportunity to take care of yourself while also imparting its importance on your child.
5. Routine, Routine, Routine!
School is a highly structured environment. Kids benefit from predictability and consistency. Openly discuss the new routine with your children. If appropriate, make visuals to help them. A whiteboard on the refrigerator or garage door, for example. Eliminate trivial choices to avoid "decision fatigue". Scientific studies have revealed a positive correlation between the number of decisions a person makes on a daily basis and the quality of their decisions. In other words, more decisions corresponds a higher number of bad choices and a decline in willpower. This is especially true at the end of the day when your child gets off the bus. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is notorious for wearing the same gray t-shirt every day. In explaining why, he points to decision fatigue. It is one less thing Zuckerberg has to worry about, freeing his mind to focus on things of value and consequence. It is worth applying this principle to your child’s routines. A clearly defined schedule adds predictability to your child’s day and eliminates many unimportant decisions. Consider picking out clothes, meal planning, packing lunchboxes and backpacks the night before as good habits to cultivate.
6. Provide a Distraction-Free and Calm Environment:
When your child is completing homework, provide an environment that is free of distractions. No TV or radio blaring. Insist that they leave their phone and other devices in a different room. Aim for calm and inviting. This will boost their productivity, create an association with this space as a work space, and eliminate stress. As the year goes on, your child's mind and body will automatically shift into study mode when they enter this space.
7. Get Help:
If you suspect your child’s stress is more than just some difficulty reacquainting to the school schedule, look to the help of a professional. Use guidance counselors and school staff as a starting point for recommendations. Speak with your pediatrician and consider consulting a therapist. You know your child best—trust your gut!
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