Student Stress: How to Spot and Manage it

How to spot, and help your child work through, stress has become an increasingly important component of parenthood. Here Agnes Holly takes us through what to look out for, before detailing basic helping techniques that could help your child back onto the right path.
Student Stress: How to Spot and Manage it
By David Westley
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Stress. A mere 30 years ago we hardly knew the word; now it is an accepted fact of life, bandied about readily by children as young as 7. When we use the word, we are referring to excessive, debilitating amounts of stress. Stress levels that are threatening to crush a person.

With exams now upon us, it is something both students, and their parents need to be aware of - how to spot it, and how to cope with it and manage it.

Stress carefully managed is hugely positive, spurs us on and gives us energy. Poorly managed, it can overwhelm and incapacitate. Teenagers, for all their bluster, are not fully grown, developed or matured in any sense - no matter how much they claim differently.

Teenage bodies, brains, views, voices, social skills, emotions and coping mechanisms are still malleable, under constant change, waiting to take their final forms. What we need to look out for are the signs of stress.

In an adult these are easy to see. But what exactly is normal behaviour for teens? Teenage moods seem to change daily, leaving young adults themselves often surprised. How exactly is one supposed to recognise any signs in this chaos of emotions and behaviours? To make this task even more challenging, stress can manifest itself in a myriad ways. These include:

  • Loss of appetite OR excessive eating, leading to eating disorders
  • Constantly withdrawn OR overly wound-up,
  • Always on the go OR cannot get started, procrastinating
  • Nail-biting, hair loss, hair twirling, hair chewing or pulling
  • Frequent undefined headaches, stomach aches
  • Diarrhoea OR constipation
  • Nausea, dizzy spells
  • Chest pains
  • Anxious pacing (like a caged lion)
  • Too much OR too little sleep
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed

With so many contrasting symptoms, there is no real way to be sure here. As parents all we can do is keep channels of communication open. Try to engage in conversation, as often and as naturally as you possibly can with a grumpy teenager.

If you start becoming concerned, watch carefully, keep up a steady stream of food and go with your instinct. The worst that could happen is that you get laughed at, or the door slams on you; both are worth risking in a good cause. (Teenagers - try to remember your parents are only trying to help!).

Some stress, of course, is unavoidable in life, for example when travelling or having tests or performances. At what point levels of stress swing into unacceptable is highly individual, dependent on a person’s genetic make-up as well as on their general outlook in life. 

Hopw personality/attitude helps:

  • Spiritual and very positive, as well as emotionally intelligent and aware people, generally cope better with higher levels of stress
  • People with strong family or community support, whether religious, work, compound, friendship or sport group, fare better 
  • People who perceive themselves as lonely are far more vulnerable
  • Being a natural optimist helps

Being forewarned about a potentially stressful interlude – job interviews, exams, visits to the police, doctors, a difficult operation, therapy or a summons to the headmaster’s office – helps. Knowing what to expect, helps with coping. In the midst of exams, a timetable, and revision plan is essential...

Knowing strategies to calm ourselves down helps, such as listening to or playing music, talking to a friend, doing exercise, breathing through deeply help, as does going for a walk.  

Coping with Stress

There are many undesirable ways of coping with stress which are easy to do and even meet with social acceptance. Taking pills, drinking too much coffee or even alcohol, smoking, over-eating or just slouching to “recover” from that test, interview, or stressful day, are not ideal coping strategies.

Learning ways of dealing with our stress is rapidly becoming a vital life skill. It is very difficult to control the stress children are put under. They can, however, control their reactions to it. They, or anyone else suffering from stress, need to be shown how to do this.

Because stress mounts up gradually, by the time the individual realises that they are completely stressed, their responses are full-blown and their thoughts are out of control. This is where parents, or if need be, therapists or the school psychologist, need to step in.

Some strategies:

  • If a situation cannot be avoided, such as a difficult exam or a confrontation, find an upside to it. Focus on what comes after. Focus on the relief once it is over and out of the way.
  • Try to be get children to be assertive and candid about their concerns. They may find that they are not alone with their worries, or that a strong approach is respected.
  • Children need to to try to be as flexible as they feel is right – come to a compromise.
  • If children are torn between loyalties, wanting to please too many people or embracing too many time-consuming good causes, they must learn to say “no.” Someone may be in a bit of a huff, but they will get over it.
  • Break big and complex tasks into smaller ones. If your child is suffering from being overwhelmed get them to make a list and cross each completed task off with a fat marker as it is accomplished. Allow a sense of achievement to spurn them on as they begin to tackle the daunting task.
  • Encourage your child to accept that not everything can be perfect. You, as their parent, can gauge whether they are putting themselves under additional pressure through aiming for perfection in a task where that may not be necessary. This may not apply in some cases, but redoing a poster for the third time because it “still doesn’t look right” according to some ideal, may be when it is necessary to step in.
  • Help your child focus on the positives in their life. When one thing is bad try to remind them of a good thing. It is important to keep worries in perspective. During exam time remind your children that some of the most successful business leaders did not do well academically (just look at Richard Branson!).
  • The cheapest and single most effective way to release tension is physical exercise. Yoga and meditation are excellent at calming a racing, overwrought mind. Encourage them to go for a long walk
  • Healthy eating, with plenty of fresh, raw ingredients are important in combating stress. If they are coffee drinkers, limit the number of coffees a day: 3 maximum, 2 would be better. No caffeinated drinks or drinks containing sweeteners should be allowed in addition to this.
  • Even in exam time, some relaxation, wind-down time has to be incorporated into the day. Encourage your child to listen to music, draw, chat with friends, go for a walk with the dog. They should engage in something to distract from their worries.
  • Ensure enough, but not excessive, amounts of sleep.
  • Finally, remind them “this too shall pass”.

Reminding young adults of the day the exam, the meeting, the interviews, the competition is over, and how their current all engulfing problems will soon be a memory, helps enormously. We cannot take away stress altogether. We can only help, keep our wits about us, be vigilant and notice if the situation develops into one where expert advice becomes necessary.  

Agnes Holly has worked for more than 25 years in education ranging from university to nursery, and everything in-between.  She is a qualified SEN teacher and has worked extensively with children who have dyslexia and ADHD.  She has additional practical experience in the form of five of her own children aged between 6 and 23.

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