School stress: how can we help?

Stress is a response of the body that is useful for survival. If an optimal stress level is necessary, what should we do when we exceed this level?

Stress can give us a sense of being overwhelmed and frightened by everything that is requested from us and that drags us down. Our children feel that pressure too. How can we help them?

Behaviors or attitudes to identify

Children often express their difficulties through their behavior. They are acting out. They become irritable, restless and sometimes violent with themselves or with others. Regression is also possible. For example, they can suck their thumb, wet their beds again or cry over nothing…

The body is a good subject, like talking about sudden bellyaches or headaches before going to school. Food or sleep can give us hints and a daydreaming child who spaces out for long periods of time should indicate that there is something occupying their little minds!

These symptoms can be questionable for parents but it is important to distinguish between isolated events and permanent events that require reaction and reflection. Punishment and moral lessons are not worth much in those cases. Strict teaching does not help the child either and the isolation becomes greater.

Children are much more sensitive than adults to rejection and approbation. When facing an inadequate response of the parent, stress slowly turns into fear and phobias.

Some studies seem to indicate that boys are more prone to react to stress than girls, maybe because of cultural norms that put more pressure on boys, encouraging them to be strong and brave and to avoid crying and expressing distress. 

9 ways to help

Self-control. To help a stressed child, you must first control your own anxiety and consult if you cannot.

Listen. The family is the main source of help: you must help your child identify their uncontrollable stress (insomnia, mood swings, bulimia, nervous tics, headaches). Talking releases pressure and it is important to show them that they are not alone, that you are also there to help them express their anxiety.

Do not belittle the child’s problem. Even if their problems seem insignificant, they are very real for them. Never laugh at them, ridicule them or be indifferent to their fears.

Change their routine. It may be a good idea to slightly change their habits so they can relax. For example, when they get back from school, it may not be the best time to study or do their homework right away.

Prepare them well. In fall, when school starts again, it is important to prepare them, especially if they change school or if they go from elementary school to high school, for example.

Time to do nothing. Our schedules are too often overloaded and children have no time to wander, daydream and think. These moments are very useful to recharge their batteries.

Build confidence. It is important to allow your child to be part of the solution. Building their self-esteem is more important than eliminating the causes of stress. Read books about stress with them, books written according to their age. These readings will help them understand what is going on and find solutions that would work for them.

Learn to relax. Learn, practice and teach them a few relaxation techniques. Set an example by changing yourself.

Ask for help. If you feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, consult a specialist, a pediatrician or a psychologist who will help you adopt good attitudes.

How to help a preschool child
  • Toddlers (0–6 years old) cannot analyze or verbalize solutions to get help. Only an adult can protect them from stress. Success depends on the adult who will note signs, identify the problem, listen, reassure and hug them.
  • If the stress of the child is in reaction to the daycare, tell the educator about your worries and try to find out what is going on there.
  • Reassure your child about how you will solve the problem with them and for them.

Set an example. Keep calm in difficult situations. 

Martine Jouffroy Valton

Martine studied clinical psychotherapy in 1995, earning a diploma from the Gestalt Intervention Centre of Montreal, followed by five years of practicing therapy in the city. She has accompanied people on the road to death, and has helped families affected by genetic illnesses or AIDS. Today, she works as a coach for a communications and marketing company, helping to recruit international experts for the European Commission in Brussels. She also has a private practice and greatly enjoys one-on-one time with her patients. For more info, email her at or give her a call at +32-485-614-234.

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