Monday, May 8, 2017

Five Ways to Help Kids Deal with End of the Year Stress

The end of the school year is rough around these parts. Between Teacher Appreciation week, end of year celebrations, sports tournaments, and Spring concerts, I am begging for mercy by the end of May. And let us not forget that I still have work, bills to pay, and a household to manage. I feel overwhelmed trying to keep too many balls in the air. 

Sometimes the stress of everything makes me forget that it’s equally hard for my kids. They have all the social, academic, athletic, and domestic expectations they normally deal with and this time of year they also have the added pressure of lots of standardized testing. 

My three kids respond to this stress in different ways. One is an anxious worrier, one is a perfectionist, and one toughs it out until the pressure boils over and there's a massive meltdown. Not everything works for all kids obviously, but I have a couple of things in my bag of tricks to help make this time of year easier.

The older my kids get, the more important I think it is to give them tools to handle stress themselves. In just a few years, they’ll be on their own in the world. I want them to know that life gets stressful sometimes, and that's normal. Feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or anxious in response to stress is also normal. I want them to remember that there are healthy things they can do to make it more manageable. I worry that if I don’t teach them healthy ways to manage it, someone will hand them a drink or some weed at a party and they will wonder if maybe that’s the easiest way to deal with the hard stuff that life will inevitably throw at them. 

Here are five things I try to do in my family to help deal with the end of the year stress.

#1: Check yourself before you wreck... something
I always start with myself - am I modeling reasonable behavior for my kids when I get stressed out? If I’m freaking out and snapping at everyone, I need to get my act together. It happens and hey - I’m not perfect.

Here’s what I can do about it. I can explain why I’m stressed out and I can apologize. I can propose some solutions to make things better. I can also take a minute, take a deep breath, and remind myself and everyone else that being ten minutes late to basketball or church or school is really not a very big deal.

Another part of checking myself is figuring out if there’s just too much on our collective plate. I do this with my kids and we talk about it. If baseball and swim overlap for two weeks, then there’s no time for homework or just to decompress for a few minutes after school - both of which we place a lot of value on. So we pick one sport or the other. You can’t do everything and the older the kids get, the more they should take the lead on realistically prioritizing their time and activities.

#2: Prioritize the stuff that’s stressing you out 
In addition to making sure that kiddos aren’t set up to fail by being too over-scheduled, sometimes they need help figuring out how to organize and plan their work. I have a kid who spent every Sunday of second quarter at the dining room table, staring at piles of work, wondering how on earth everything in the planner could possibly get done before Monday. This is not a lazy or procrastinating child either, it’s just a kid with a ton of work who needed some tips to get things mapped out. Organizing and planning out tasks may seem intuitive to us with our grown up brains and fully developed frontal lobes, but for kids, it can be challenging. 

We started with a T-table (see below) with homework on one side and the amount of time we estimated it would take to complete, along with the due date, on the other. It immediately made it clear what needed to get done right away and how much time was needed to tackle it.

Another great (and similar) strategy is the “Must Do, Should Do, Could do”  which works really well for kids who are perfectionists.* 

Another thing to consider with kids who are developing their executive functioning skills is their perception of time. My genius friend Jessica at HowtoADHD discusses in one of her videos that she chronically underestimates how long things take her and fails to add in transition times when scheduling things. It may be helpful for some kids to spend a few days keeping track of how long it actually takes them to do various tasks, so they can better plan for getting things done in the future.

**I ended up on their newletter’s mailing list a couple of years ago after meeting author Ann Dolin, and my right hand to God, that newsletter is the best free resource in the world when it comes to managing kids’ homework and school stuff. Her advice is always sane, reasonable and super helpful. 

#3: Teach them to “talk back” to worries and anxious thoughts
For me, the worst part of being stressed out is feeling so overwhelmed that I don’t know where to start. That leads to procrastination, which leads to more stress. It's a cycle of crap. 

These stress worries can sometimes take the forms of intrusive thoughts that jump to the worst possible conclusion (the fear that you’ll fail the test, be embarrassed in front of the entire class, fail out of school, and end up living in a van down by the river). These worries can also take the form of really critical self-talk. 

A wonderful family counselor I’ve worked with advises kids to “talk back” to the inner voice that’s telling them they’ll never get anything done or they’ll fail the test. Think logically, address that worst case scenario, and respond to it with your rational brain. For example; even if I fail the test, the worst that will happen is that my grade will drop. I can always ask for a re-take. Or I can ask my older brother or mom for help. Or even ask for a tutor. If anyone teases me about getting a bad grade, I’ll just tell them to go suck an egg and hang out with Stephanie because she’s always nice.

#4: Focus on process and effort. Forget about grades, test scores, and wins.
Several years ago, educational expert Ann Dolin talked to me about the importance of praising kids for their effort, rather than telling them that they’re smart. This advice has been so helpful to me over the years. Effort is something that kids have control over, they decide to focus on their attitude and work ethic. Being smart is an innate characteristic, which they have no say over. When a child who's always been told they're brilliant starts to struggle, they may feel ashamed or that something is wrong with them. 

Praising kids for consistently working hard on homework or practice is giving them positive feedback on something they decided to do and can take responsibility for and pride in.  If they start to struggle, instead of feeling bad about themselves, they will know that since work and effort guide the outcome - it's something they can work on and change. It truly encourages them to focus on effort, attitude, and process. From those things, success will eventually come. Without them, nothing is guaranteed, not in school, sports, music, or work later in life.

If your kid fails a test, work with him and her on understanding the material and improving their study skills in class and at home. Remind them that it’s no big deal to fail at something, that’s where a lot of important learning takes place. Responding well to failure and setbacks is also called resiliency, and it’s a character trait we could all use more of. 

#5: Create a self-care check list
This is legitamately my checklist from my Bullet Journal.
When stress starts to really take a toll, it’s easy to forget that there are some basic things you can do to take care of yourself. When you're frazzled and busy, you don't always think clearly about how to set yourself up to tackle all your responsibilities. You can check out my own personal list below. You’d be surprised how much enough sleep and eating protein at breakfast will do to improve my state of mind. If I can do a couple of the things on my list, I can usually put myself in a head space where I feel less stressed and more productive. 

For my kids, the items might be: 
  • Go jump on the trampoline for 20 minutes
  • Read a comic book 
  • Go play fetch with the dogs
  • Take a nap
  • Eat all my servings of fruit and veggies and no junk food today. 
  • Make my bed and put all my laundry in the hamper, so my room is less crazy.
  • Make a list of everything I need to do
  • Go for a dog walk and talk things out with mom or dad
It’s really helpful for kids to create the list themselves (or with you) and have it to refer to when they need it. I keep mine in my journal or planner, but kids can keep it taped to their wall or pinned to a message board. If they have a phone or a tablet, they can also make a note and save it there.

Hopefully these are helpful suggestions. Kids today are more stressed than ever and it can make under-age drinking seem very appealling as a method to cope. If nothing else, it's great to just keep an eye on them for signs of stress so you can start of a conversation, or many small conversations, about how to deal with it though making healthy choices. 

This post is sponsored by Responsibility.org as part of their Ask.Listen.Learn. campaign, encouraging families to talk early, talk often, and be healthy. All the opinions are my own because no one is the boss of me. I'm very proud to be part of their team this year. 

(c) Mommyland Blogs 2013-2017


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