When school starts again, parents are on the front line of creating motivated and academically successful children. Each child needs a team: a group of teachers and school counselors, but they cannot go home with a student. Parents have to be their child’s biggest advocate, learning how to mesh together a child’s academics, extracurricular activities, and the very important mental health of their child’s life. Parents feel like they are jugglers, trying to balance it all!  But in doing so, parents are able to help their children avoid stress and manage their lives that often become chaotic and confusing once school begins. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress is extremely common among teenagers, with school being the main source of stress. Proper preparation, research, and good decision-making on the part of the parent are building blocks in preventing their child, especially their teenager, from the affliction of stress-related injuries, such as severe anxiety, school avoidance, and even depression.

There are a few very simple things that parents can do to make a huge difference in their student’s education. First, proper decision-making is crucial when choosing with your child, courses for this school year.  There is a huge push in the public and  private schools to steer students to APs (Advanced Placement), honors, and other high-level courses. A grave error that even the most prepared families make is in allowing their teen to take as many AP courses as he/she wants without investigating the actual day-to-day impact they will have on both the child and the family! Fairfax County offers a whopping thirty-three different AP courses. Students are often expected to rise to the challenge to take as many as possible, facing the rigors of heightened homework, often spilling over to the midnight hours and weekends. More importantly, students are at times forced into competition with their peers regardless of whether the child is an “AP-taker” or not. Those who don’t take APs may feel that they have less self-worth, equating the number of APs on the child’s schedule with intelligence.  Such erroneous perceptions create enormous stress on teens, as reported in The Fairfax Youth Survey:  22.7% of eighth graders reported facing high-stress levels, but this rate dramatically increases with more than 45.7% of 12th graders reporting feelings of severe stress. (The higher the grade level, the more AP courses offered.)  The question needs to be asked:  Is loading a schedule with AP courses worth risking a child’s emotional health?

The second decision a parent needs to make relates to the home life, and in particular, monitoring closely the amount of sleep their child needs in order to remain calm and healthy.  It is an accepted fact that teens require at least eight to ten hours of sleep per night. According to Stanford Children’s Health Sleep Center, “The most recent national poll shows that more than 87 percent of U.S. high school students get far less than the recommended eight to ten hours of sleep each night.” (Stanford Medical News Center) Because lack of proper sleep is also related to an increased risk of physical illness, anxiety and depression in teens, this is another reason why parents need to take a careful look at their child’s curriculum. “Feeling nervous or anxious, feeling tired, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, feeling overwhelmed, having negative thoughts and experiencing changes in sleeping habits. Problems with concentrating and changes in eating habits (eating too much or too little) are also linked to stress,” (APA). When a student is distressed, and their mental health is left unaddressed, academic prosperity is simply not possible. Sadly even the most well-meaning parent can miss all these signs as parents struggle to push their children into bright futures while keeping them safe.  With all the competition and worry about college, it is easy to lose sight of the basics. Children need to sleep, and sleep well. A perfect GPA won’t sustain them, and a crash will be inevitable.

Once parents recognize signs of struggle and symptoms of extreme stress, there needs to be a plan…and quick! Sometimes all a student needs is a break. Sometimes this is not enough.  Three management steps can be taken to help a suffering, sleep-deprived child  afflicted with anxiety, depression, or actual physical illness due to stress.   1. Seek professional help.  Maintaining good communication with the child and speaking with trusted individuals and professionals will help the stress management process successfully unfold  (National Alliance on Mental Illness). This can also start with a referral from a family doctor, school counselor, or at a private therapy group.  Additionally, to find an extensive list of mental health professionals in both Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, you may wish to visit Psychology Today (https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms), take a look at their list and read their resumes and specialties.   2. It is vitally important to make sure to have a discussion with your child about this plan and when possible, involve him/her in the decision-making.  Emphasize to them that no matter how much you advocate for them, they also need to be their biggest advocates.   3. Create a schedule to balance family life, proper sleep schedules and time for family and friends.  Time for quality fun, bonding (such as a family camping break), and relaxed sleep time can go a very, long way in reducing both a child’s and a worried parent’s stress.

Yes, grades are important. So is your child’s achievement in other areas. But we must look closely at what we educators call “the whole child,” taking into account the child’s mental health, of which includes low stress levels. With all of this information in focus, we can ensure students will be ready to tackle school this fall with a happy and healthy mindset.

 

By, Sharon Strauchs, Director, Cortona Academy

www.CortonaLearning.com

 

 

American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-teens.aspx

Psychology Today. https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms

Stanford Medical News Center, October 8, 2015.  Ruthann Richter. Http://med.stanford.edu

The Fairfax Youth Survey Report. http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/demogrph/youthpdf.htm. 2017