Dear Mr. Dad: School is starting and my 11-year-old daughter is pretty stressed out. She’s always excited about the new school year and she’d been talking all summer about how much she was looking forward to school, but all of a sudden, she’s saying she doesn’t want to go. What can I do to help her?
A. For some kids, the first day of school is just another day. No big deal. But for many others, like your daughter, it’s one of the most stressful days of the year. There can be all sorts of reasons. Has anyone your daughter knows been bullied, and is she worried that it might happen to her (or, if it already did, that it’ll happen again)? Is she nervous about those annoying standardized tests or dreading the homework load? Has she heard bad things about the teacher she’s going to have this year? Is she anxious about reconnecting with friends and frenemies she hasn’t seen all summer? Is she worried about going from being the big fish in the small K-5 pond to the little fish in the giant middle school lake?
Here are some things you can do to make the back-to-school transition a little less stressful.
• Talk with her. Actually, this is mostly about you listening, being there, and being empathetic. Gently encourage her to explain what she’s feeling stressed about. That’s often enough to alleviate some of the stress. Ask whether there’s anything you can do to help, but do NOT try to solve her problems for her. Wait for her to ask. The exceptions are bullying and test anxiety. It’s a good idea to give the teacher a heads-up and ask him or her to keep an eye on your daughter.
• Eliminate performance anxiety. As parents, we want our children to excel and tell them things like, “I expect you to get all A’s this year.” This puts a lot of pressure on kids, particularly if they’re starting a subject they’ve never had. Good grades are nice, but is that A really worth putting her under even more stress than she already feels or the hate she’ll develop for a subject she might have actually enjoyed if you hadn’t pushed so hard? Just ask her to do her best, and offer to get her some tutoring if she needs it.
• Limit screen time. Too many parents let their kids wake up or eat breakfast in front of the TV or table, according to researchers Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, Rebecca Jackson, and Robert Pressman, co-authors of “The Learning Habit.” They did a huge national study on family routines and found that 45 minutes per day is the most a child can spend “before there are any apparent effects on their educational, emotional and social development.” Ninety minutes of daily screen time can lower a child’s grade-point average by one grade level.
• Limit extracurricular activities. School and homework already take up the majority of your daughter’s day. If you throw in other activities like sports or music lessons, you’re just adding more stressors to the mix. Give her a little breathing room. Keep the extracurriculars to a minimum until you (and your daughter) see how she’s coping with school. If she’s doing well, add activities she’s interested in, one at a time.
• Create a learning environment. Kids who have firm rules about media, consistent homework routines, chores, a regular bedtime, and who use a calendar (digital or paper) to manage their schedule are less anxious and do better at school, say “The Learning Habit’s” authors.