The end of a semester can be a challenging time for students — this year more than most.
Kids from elementary school through high school are already strained after more than a year of pandemic-disrupted learning. Pressing through the last few weeks of the year can be daunting, especially for older students with demanding final projects and exams.
As families prepare for winter break, experts say it’s important to keep year-end homework and tests in perspective, while planning opportunities for connection and cheer that will keep spirits up as we enter the second holiday season shadowed by the pandemic.
“Parents’ fears about their kids are so often not about the present but the future — a fear that kids who are struggling will get stuck there. But kids rarely stay stuck, in part because they too want their lives to work out,” says Ned Johnson, a test preparation expert and author of “The Self-Driven Child,” who encourages parents to maintain a calm, nonreactive presence for their children.
“Emotions are contagious, so taking the edge off can lower the stress of kids,” he says.
A Stressful Time for Students
Throughout the pandemic, parents have reported unusually anxious, challenging, withdrawn or stressed-out behavior from their children, many of whom experienced the loss of a family member, their home, a parent’s job or simply their sense of security.
In addition, many middle or high school students experienced an interruption during the years of their education when they would have learned to study, stay organized and juggle multiple obligations, says Katie Hurley, psychotherapist and author of “The Stress-Buster Workbook for Kids.”
“Teens across the country tell me there’s pressure to join every activity and find a passion immediately,” Hurley says. “Children are living through extraordinary circumstances right now.”
Stressed children are responding as expected to nearly two years full of unpredictability, says Tina Payne Bryson, a psychologist and author of “The Power of Showing Up.”
“The nervous system interprets unpredictability as a potential threat, which pulls our attention away from play, creativity and learning and toward being hypervigilant about making sure we’re safe,” she says.
How Parents Can Help
When children show signs of stress or getting overwhelmed, parents should respond by focusing on mental health, not achievement or grades. “Slow down,” Hurley says. “We need to remove the race to the finish line by taking a collective pause and refocusing our energy on emotional wellness.”
Families can create a sense of safety for children by establishing routines and rhythms for the day and week, especially those that emphasize connection, such as family dinnertime and a bedtime chat. It helps to encourage play, to tell and show kids what is coming and what to expect, to avoid amplifying feelings of threat, and to remain calm and under control yourself, Bryson says. Parents should be patient and trust development to unfold.
If a child is struggling in a way that interferes with daily functioning, getting support can be helpful. Talking to a school counselor at lunchtime, for example, can give children an outlet to discuss what feels different about school since the pandemic and how to address it.
In addition to therapists and counselors, peer support programs can also play an important role in teaching skills for stress management and wellness. “Teens will talk to other teens, especially when they feel they are in a brave space built on trust,” Hurley says.
Experts say that children can benefit from learning to use deep breathing, positive self-talk, progressive muscle relaxation and “cognitive reframing,” which is looking at situations or thoughts from a different perspective, often to shift a negative perspective into one that’s more positive and forward-moving.
Parents should meet kids with empathy and listening, instead of trying to solve their problems, says Hurley, who recommends normalizing family conversation about the ups and downs of the day.
As Madeline Levine, a psychologist and author, put it, let your children “borrow your calm.”
Healthy Winter Break Plans
Some children may start winter break with incomplete assignments hanging over them. Others may arrive at the finish line exhausted and needing sleep. Or perhaps they are eager to celebrate the holidays with all the usual fanfare. Honor your child’s wishes and plan to create the winter break that fits your family’s needs.
“Though many people see this time as the return of holiday celebrations, not all kids and teens are as enthusiastic,” Hurley says. “Pushing too much too fast can cause overwhelm. If you want your kids to learn to set healthy boundaries for themselves, you have to listen to their needs.”
Experts say that your family should keep some routines and structure, even if they’re more relaxed than usual, so your children don’t feel completely unmoored. Educate your children about technology overload and the importance of sleep.
Bridget Shirvell, a parent in Mystic, Connecticut, is planning a low-key winter break without any travel, focused on family time. However, she aims to stick to a regular schedule for the benefit of her 3-year-old daughter, Charlotte McKay.
McKenna Reitz, a mom who lives near Toledo, Ohio, plans for her daughters Karsen, 9, and Maddox, 6, to enjoy time off with family and friends, which she says is the most important thing they need right now.
Reitz has prioritized open lines of communications with her children. “I want my daughters to understand that our expectations of them are not to receive the best grades, but to always be respectful, kind, caring and hard workers,” she says. “I want them to understand that it is OK to not know something. It is OK to not be OK.”
Her holiday plan reflects that sentiment. “Our children need to know that they are not alone,” she says. “As parents, we need to understand the importance of the social and emotional welfare of our children and make that a much higher priority than anything else.”
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