How to Manage Student Stress & Help Cope with Change

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boy on bed, looking out window; How to Manage Student Stress & Help Cope with Change

With the spread of the Coronavirus, many students are coping with school year changes. Sports are canceled. Extracurriculars are halted. Students are dealing with abruptly being pulled away from friends. It’s especially hard for high school and college seniors who aren’t getting the time to celebrate with friends and close out their educational chapters before the next steps in their lives. Therapist Christy Aquino, UnityPoint Health, has advice for talking to teens or young adults during this time and how you can help with stress management and mental health.

How Can Caregivers Reduce Student Stress Due to Changes From COVID-19?

“If a student comes to you with a concern, ask questions to understand where their feelings coming from.” Aquino says. “Be open and honest with the student while helping them identify their feelings. If they ask questions, give them an honest answer. This is a scary time for everyone and helping them understand the impact it may have on their life – now and in the future – may be important. Remind them, we are all in new territory with this virus, taking it day-by-day and learning together.”

It is also important for parents to validate their student’s feelings. Students being home from school all day and college students moving home is a hard transition on everyone. We are all being forced to adjust our lives in one way or another. A college student moving home from college is adjusting to not having their own space, living by parental rules again, not being able to spend time with their friends and the uncertainty of what their future. The high school student who no longer has the bathroom to themselves will have a tough time adjusting. Acknowledge the difficulties everyone is experiencing and keep an open line of communication with all your children.

Also, Aquino suggests you keep an eye on social media use. On average, individuals spend about two hours on social media per day. Being on social media and listening to the news can be a source of stress, increasing student anxiety and symptoms in individuals of all ages.

What are Signs of Stress & Anxiety That Indicate a Student Isn’t Coping Well?

“Stress isn’t just a physical reaction. It can also affect your emotions, behavior and cognition. Just as everyone is stressed by different things, everyone experiences its effects in different ways,” Aquino says.

It’s important for parents and caregivers to recognize stress levels in their student. Some of the most common symptoms and signs of stress include:
• Emotional. Feelings of agitation or irritability, inability to relate, lowered self-esteem, loneliness, depression, or feeling overwhelmed/out of control.

  • Physical. Tension headaches and other muscle pains, such as in the jaw. Chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, stomachaches, pains, nausea or shakiness, clammy or sweaty hands or tinnitus (perception of ringing in the ears).
  • Behavioral. Sudden change in appetite, avoidance of tasks/responsibilities, increased use of alcohol, smoking or drugs or nervous behaviors such as fidgeting or nail biting.
  • Cognitive. Being forgetful and disorganized, inability to focus, constantly worrying, incessant stream of thoughts or difficulty with memories.

“As a parent or caregiver, we can typically tell whether our student is handling a situation well or not. Keep an eye out for red flags such as: isolating to their room, staying up all night and sleeping all day, not calling or texting as frequently (if they don’t live with you) and being more irritable. Take some time to speak with your student about strategies they already have in place to help them cope during stressful situations. Ask them to identify three people who are available for support via phone, text, facetime or social media during this time,” Aquino says.

How Should Parents Talk with Students About Stressful Situations?

“One of the best things a parent can do is open the line of communication with a neutral topic. This will show your student you are listening with a non-judgmental attitude and may help them open up about other topics that are weighing heavy on their minds,” Aquino says. 

  1. Listen. Don’t say much but really pay attention to your student.
  2. Empathize. Look at it from your child’s perspective. Let him/her get feelings out, no matter how upset he/she is feeling.
  3. Reaffirm. Don’t try to talk your child out of being upset, but help him/her understand it’s not the end of the world and you are listening.
  4. Problem-solve. Once your child is less emotional, help him/her problem-solve to reduce stress.

What About Students Who are Missing Sports?

Aquino says students who participate in sports or extracurricular activities take pride in their participation and accomplishments throughout the season. The inability to finish the season properly may lead to feelings of not being good enough as well as anxiety or depression symptoms. 

“Not being able to finish the season on their terms may leave a lot of questions unanswered. They may experience anxiety as they find themselves asking questions such as, ‘What would have been different if I would have been able to finish the season?’ ‘Would I have been able to accomplish my goal or achieve my personal best?’ It’s very important to open dialogue with these students,” she says.

How Can We Celebrate Students?

In these uncertain times, it’s also important to talk with your student about how they would like to celebrate their achievements since many traditional options aren’t available. 

“We have a high school and a college senior at home. They are each responding differently to the thought of not being able to celebrate their successes. As parents, it’s our job to continue having conversations with each of them about their wishes and desires for celebrating their accomplishments. Parents may want to have a brainstorming session with their student to determine what options are feasible in the short-term and long-term. The student may choose to have a party when it is safe to start gathering in large groups again, take a trip, gather with friends, or they may choose to forego everything. Either way, let the choice be theirs because this is a time in their life they will never get back,” Aquino says.

How Can We Avoid Sitting Around at Home?

It’s a great time to reconnect! Try keeping some structure in their day-to-day life even when classes aren’t in session.

“Ask your student to do some chores, cook dinner, help with yard work, go for a walk or watch a movie with you. Encouraging teens/young adults to maintain social contact with their family is important in maintaining a healthy mind throughout this time. Get creative with technology to stay connected. Encourage mind-body activities like working out, yoga, walking, playing board games, baking, cooking or reading,” Aquino says.