Dear Mr. Dad: My 14-year-old (high-school freshman) son is completely stressed out. In the past, he always looked forward to school, but for the past few weeks, he's been saying that he doesn't want to go. What can I do to help him?
A: For some kids, going to school is no big deal. But for plenty of others, like your son, it's incredibly stressful. There can be all sorts of reasons. Is he (or anyone he knows) being bullied -- or is he worried that it could happen to him, or, if it already did, that it'll happen again? Is he nervous about those annoying standardized tests or having trouble keeping up with the high-school homework load? Does he have friends? Is he spending too much time on social media? Is he getting worried about college (yes, it's early for him, but some kids, especially perfectionists, start getting prepared years in advance).
-- Here are some things you can do reduce school-related stress.
Talk with him. Actually, this is mostly about you listening, being there, and being empathetic. Gently encourage him to explain what he's feeling. 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 his problems for him. Wait for him 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 son.
-- Eliminate performance anxiety. As parents, we want our children to excel and we 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 taking a subject they've never had or have had trouble with in the past. Good grades are nice, but is that A really worth putting him under even more stress than he already feels or the hate he'll develop for a subject he might have actually enjoyed if you hadn't pushed so hard? Just ask him to do his best and offer to get him some tutoring (or to help if you're able) if he needs it.
-- Limit screen time. Too many parents pay too little attention to their children's non-academic screen usage. Kids sleep with their phone, spend breakfast catching up on all the social media updates they slept through (if they slept at all), spend every second of every passing period texting, and so on. Researcher Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and her colleagues did a huge, national study 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 GPA by one grade level. Again, we're talking about non-academic-related screen time here.
-- Limit extracurricular activities. In high school, your son's primary job is to be a good student, which includes keeping up with homework and other assignments. Anything else, whether it's sports or music lessons, could add more stress to the mix--unless, of course, it's a stress-reliever. Give him plenty of breathing room. Keep the extracurriculars to a minimum until you (and your son) are confident that he's coping well with school. If so, add activities he'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, says Donaldson-Pressman.
-- Don't Be Shy About Calling in a Professional. If your son needs tutoring, help him find a tutor. If he's being bullied, notify the school administration. If he has fewer friends than usual (or none at all), has lost interest in activities he used to love, is behaving strangely, or is spending an excessive amount of time with his face in a device, consider meeting with a child psychologist. There's no shame asking for help.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c)2019 Armin Brott
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