How can I help my child cope with school stress?

A parenting expert offers advice for helping kids navigate school related worries. By Rikki Loftus.

Help them channel their worries into something they enjoy
Young girl looking unhappy Help them channel their worries into something they enjoy (Alamy Stock Photo)

Stress is something we often deal with in adult life, but what do we do when our children are facing stress at school?

From playground dynamics and bullying, to academic pressures and keeping up with homework, there may be lots of tricky scenarios for youngsters to navigate.

However, there are some simple and practical ways parents and carers can help children learn to cope with stress when we leave them at the school gates.

How can you tell if your child is stressed?

(Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

According to Liat Hughes Joshi, author of five parenting books, there are signs you can look out for when it comes to your child being stressed, starting with anything that is out of the ordinary for them.

Look out for small changes in behaviour and patterns, such as not eating as much or eating more than normal, or if they’re struggling to sleep and more noticeably tired than usual – these could all be indications that they are struggling with things.

Encourage them to open up about their feelings

Ever asked your child what happened at school and heard “nothing” as their stock response?

Alicia Eaton, a Harley Street psychotherapist specialising in children’s emotional wellbeing and behaviour change, points out that children don’t always find it easy to open up – so be patient, and spending quality time with them can help encourage them talk about their emotions.

“The more time you spend with them, the more likely they are to share their feelings and concern,” Eaton says. “I would build in extra time together, even at the weekends.”

Think about the best way to approach the topic

How you approach the conversation about stress at school with your child depends on their individual learning style and how they display emotion, advises Eaton.

(Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

“If you’ve got a visual child, it would be good for them to draw a picture, as it will be a way for them to express their emotions and then they can change those pictures into the positive,” she says. “If you’ve got an auditory child, they like to listen and they like to hear words, they want explanations. Listening to soothing words is what will calm them down and listening to music.”

Help them channel their stress into something creative

Eaton warns against using negative phrases like “don’t worry” when discussing your child’s concerns with them – it possibly won’t have the desired effect. Instead, try setting up a worry box with them. “Parents can go round in circles trying to allay their children’s fears – and you’re not going to, because it hasn’t happened yet, it’s in the future,” she explains.

With a worry box, your child can write down all their concerns onto pieces of paper, and then shut them in the box with a lid. When those events they were worried about have happened, they can take the worries out of the box and rip them up.

Help them build positive coping techniques

There are practical and simple activities your child can do when they are stressed ,but they might not know where to turn. Hughes Joshi suggests creating a “menu of wellbeing” for them. This could be a chart that you set up on the fridge, or something for them to keep in their room.

On the menu will be various things your child likes doing, and can do when they are feeling worried or low. It could something simple like a cuddle from a parent, or time spent drawing or writing.

“It might be something like having a bath with a bath bomb or a candle [if they are old enough!],” Hughes Joshi adds. “Help them understand what works for them and then use those coping tactics for when they’re feeling stressed”

(Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

Often, children don’t understand themselves that what’s going on is stress about something. Instead, they may complain of a tummy ache or that they feel sick. If that’s the case, Eaton suggests encouraging a walk outside in the fresh air, or running them a warm bath.

Create a calm environment at home

One simple trick that might create a calmer and happier atmosphere for your child is to clear household clutter, Eaton says. “Even a tidy house gets rid of all the stress and panic before you go to school,” she adds.

Organisation in the home will put a stop to worrying about where the lunchbox is, or finding their school bag and shoes in a mad rush before heading out the door.

“Switch off the TV, make sure that you’re not listening to lots of horrific news stories – let’s face it, there’s far too many of those around at the moment – and fill the house with calming, relaxing, soothing music instead,” says Eaton. “Light a candle if you have lavender or rosemary, that will just change the atmosphere in the house and keep everybody feeling a lot calmer.”