Going back to school can be an overwhelming time for both kids
and parents. That's why we asked local teachers, child therapists
and parent bloggers for their best tips on heading back to school
for all ages-preschool, elementary and middle school.
- Kristen Kuchar
- Julie Pease, director of Connecting Kids Preschool, Wilmette
Public School, District 39
While stress is a normal part of life, kids today seem bombarded
Whether they experience life-altering changes like divorce
or death in the family or just everyday adjustments like moving
homes or new schools, kids often don't have the tools to manage the
"Stress becomes a problem when it interferes with daily
activities on a regular basis," says Sara Sladoje, a
child life specialist at Chicago-based GRASP Group. "If weeks go by
and your child is having a hard time engaging in their normal
activities like playing, sleeping or eating, take a step back from
the situation and decide if he or she might be struggling with
From toddlers to little kids to big kids, each age group
shows signs of stress differently.
It's crucial to know what to look for, what steps to take
and how to help your child manage.
"Sometimes if you have the tools, you can stop it from
becoming a bigger problem," says Sladoje.
Our littlest children lack the communication skills and
obviously can't verbalize when they feel stressed.
"It's important with toddlers to pay attention to their
behavioral changes as indications of stress," says
Julianne Neely, clinical social worker and therapist at Individual
and Family Connection in Chicago.
Signs of stress in toddlers are often shown through
regression in behaviors like sleep, using the potty, attachment to
objects and an increase in tantrums.
Tami Conway, a Chicago mother of two, witnessed her
then-3-year-old daughter's stress in the midst of their new baby
being born and the opening of her new business.
"As a direct result of my high stress between the baby and
work, I saw an increase in my daughter's anxiety and stress through
her suddenly changed behaviors and increased tantrums,"
"As soon as I was able to relax and be present, I
immediately saw the change in my daughter."
According to Neely, stress trickles down to
"Your child doesn't realize your stress isn't theirs. It's
important to be in check with your own stress levels and the way
you handle it so it's not passed along unnecessarily to your
children," says Neely.
As small kids become school age, they encounter a new
world that often can create stress on top of anything that might be
happening at home.
"Anything that is a stress for adults is a stress for a
child. Whether it's moving to a new home and school or marital
issues at home, kids are strongly impacted by changes in their
routine," says Sladoje.
Signs of stress for little kids are similar to toddlers
with more angry outbursts, changes in sleep or appetite, reverting
to bedwetting or night-waking, and regressive behaviors like
clinging or separation anxiety.
Jennifer Evers, a Naperville mom of two, experienced a
double whammy between the end of her marriage and the sudden loss
of her father.
"To have two traumatic events happen to our family at
once, I had to set aside feelings of failing my daughters and
become open to outside help that the kids needed,"
says Evers about her 4- and 7-year-old daughters.
"We now go to therapy to help cope with our stresses and talk
about how we are feeling," Evers says. "We've learned
breathing techniques and even tried some yoga to help calm everyone
Sladoje says it is important for this age group to label
feelings and to ask specific questions.
"Ask if they are sad or angry and be OK with them saying
yes," she says.
Connect with your child every day and ask specific
questions about their day, Sladoje says. "If they express concerns,
help give them the message of what they can do differently to make
it better next time."
When kids enter middle school, it can feel like their
whole world is changing. Between hormones, body changes, peer
pressure, bullying and academic pressures, stress is a likely part
of a pre-teen's life.
Signs of stress in this age group are often withdrawal,
isolation, demeanor changes and general negativity.
"Take the time to really listen when your child expresses
feelings of being nervous, anxious or upset. These are cues parents
tend to overlook," says Neely. "When your child is
saying negative statements about themselves or others, that's a
good indication that something isn't right."
Veronica Arreloa, from Chicago's West Ridge neighborhood,
experienced it with her 9-year-old daughter.
"My daughter didn't use the term stress, but told us that
she was feeling worried and upset about upcoming testing at her
She felt pressure from teachers and older students to
perform well, which caused her to become incredibly
anxious," says Arreloa.
"We really tried to talk to her about her feelings and
minimize her worry. It helped relieve the pressure she was putting
on herself," Arreloa says.
As pre-teens learn to navigate on their own, it's key for
parents to act as a guide for them but not fix the
"Encourage your kids to take responsibility for their own
problems in this age group," says Neely. "Think of it
as a test run for life."
See more of Megan's stories here.
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