March 17, 2021

Helping your kids with school-related stress

A Kaiser Permanente psychiatrist shares simple tips to reduce stress and anxiety, and encourages families to get help when it’s needed.

Many kids deal with stress and anxiety related to school. Due to the pandemic, some schools are still closed, and there are safety concerns for those children who are learning in person. And distance learning has made it hard for some students to connect with teachers and classmates.

Karen R. Stewart, MD, a Kaiser Permanente psychiatrist in Atlanta, Georgia, said the pandemic has made it clear just how precious the things our schools provide really are. Losing access to the structure of the school day — and to the teachers, friends, clubs, and activities that help students learn to express themselves — has disrupted many kids’ sense of security and well-being.

Dr. Stewart has a unique insight into school-related mental health challenges. Prior to becoming a doctor, she was a high school chemistry and physical science teacher in Roswell, Georgia, and many of her students struggled with mental health concerns. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety and depression in young people were on the rise.

“What’s unique about the current situation is that the things we typically tell people to do to manage mental health conditions aren’t available,” said Dr. Stewart. “It takes a village of teachers, coaches, school counselors, grandparents, friends, and many other people to help raise a child under normal circumstances. But during the pandemic, those interactions have become potentially dangerous for everyone involved.”

Dr. Stewart recommends several simple but effective ways to help kids reduce anxiety and stay connected to their friends and loved ones.

Embrace realistic expectations

Many kids and parents haven’t adjusted their expectations for academic achievement despite being in a difficult environment. If your children are struggling to keep up, talk to their teachers and help your kids determine which assignments are absolutely necessary so they can focus only on what they really need to learn right now.

Schedule frequent breaks

When you and your kids create a schedule, make sure to include plenty of breaks throughout the school day. Sitting in front of a screen all day can be extremely challenging, particularly for younger children and those with ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Listening to upbeat music, getting up to move and stretch, or having a healthy snack in a different room can help kids refresh and reset during the school day.

Plan plenty of fun time

Social time is crucial for childhood and adolescent development. Take family walks, ride bikes, or fly a kite to get out of the house and move around outside. These are great ways to bond and relieve stress at the same time. There is also evidence that exposure to natural light has been shown to significantly decrease the risk of myopia, or nearsightedness.

Open lines of communication

Kids need to talk about how they feel, the challenges they’re having, and what’s happening in their lives. If you have a hard time getting your kids to open up, try asking specific but open-ended questions like, “What was one fun or interesting thing that happened today?” or “What was something challenging that happened this week?”

Know when to seek professional help.

Unusual drops in grades, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and complaints of frequent headaches or stomach aches can all be related to anxiety and stress, and may be a sign of a more serious problem.

If you notice big changes or swings in your child’s mood or behavior over several weeks or longer, contact a mental health professional for advice or an evaluation. You can also discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician to develop a care plan that meets your child’s individual needs.

“If you hear your child say anything about self-harm or thoughts of suicide, take them seriously,” said Dr. Stewart. “Parents are often afraid to ask questions about those subjects because they aren’t sure what to do or say when they get the answer, but there are lots of resources to help you and your child. Many virtual options are available for mental health support and treatment, and they’re very effective.”

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s mental health and wellness resources.