Working through stress and remembering what matters most.
Teacher, parent, and student stress tends to peak during this time of the school year. Exam season has started, major project deadlines are approaching, many students (and their teachers!) are starting to feel rundown and burnt out. The effects of mental stress are different for everyone, but they are generally thought of as negative. Children and adolescents may not be able to understand how they are being impacted, or what is causing the negative feelings.
People who have studied stress in children and teens have typically talked about the issues that cause them stress; for example, homework, exams, schedules, etc. So, if students say that they’re stressed about passing exams, parents shift their focus to helping their children study and prepare. However, there is a better approach.
One of the main reasons that stress arises is because the ‘thing’ that we are stressing about has a lot of meaning attached to it. In other words, we have the most stress about the things that matter to us the most. The more that we care about them, the more difficult they are to manage when something goes awry. When parents place importance on homework, essays, exams, behaviour, attendance, etc., their children internalise those values as well. People are often surprised to learn that students who are failing care very deeply about school. The students care so deeply that the idea of failing paralyses them.
If we want to help children have less stress, we need to devalue the thing that is causing them stress, even if only slightly. This does not mean that we tell them school does not matter; it does. However, emphasising outcomes adds to the potential for stress and reduces the chance that the kids will respond in a healthy and productive way. Instead, focus on intention and effort. Acknowledge your child for trying, for caring, and for what they have done, rather than what they haven’t. Remind them that they have more value than what appears on a report card. One assignment, even one academic year, are worth far less than your child’s overall well-being. The point is that, sometimes, school matters too much.