By Darryl Sollerh & Leslie King
Precious few of us would ever claim to behave better when we are stressed, or contend that our relationships, or the way we handle our responsibilities, improve when we feel pressured.
So imagine, then, (or recall!) how stress can feel to your Middle Schooler or teenager, who has far less experience to help him or her cope — because every child will inevitably feel beset by parental demands, family conflicts, homework and schoolwork, their teachers, social lives, or personal troubles. Sometimes all at once.
And especially during this stretch of the year, when schools send home mid-semester report cards, moms and dads may likewise find their own stress levels spiking, compelled by their son’s or daughter’s results to either take dramatic action in hopes of reversing the downward turn, or rallying to absolve their child of his or hers’ self-imposed expectations.
In response to which, the under-achieving child may feel profoundly misunderstood, if not woefully wronged by parents, or all authority figures, who, while imposing new demands and restrictions on them, can all too often use words such as “lazy” and “irresponsible” to make their point – regardless if they apply (and more often than not, they don’t, especially when stress is involved), thus only adding to the pressures a Middle Schooler or teen may already be feeling.
For the students suffering from the high expectations they place on themselves, anything less than an “A” can feel like the sky is falling, and their fears rob them of many youthful joys, and, in some cases, their childhoods.
And that’s why stress, often unrecognized for the tyrant it is, can lead to many family conflicts that devolve into misleading arguments, generating far more heat than light, and upsetting, if not polarizing all involved while frequently reducing well-intentioned parents to either prison-wardens, or perplexed crisis counselors.
So what can help, when times of stress predictably arise?
Let’s begin by recognizing some of the potential sources of stress, including not only the aforementioned, but also the ways in which over-booked schedules, filled with endless extra-curricular activities, can leave little time for a child to rest or relax. Equally, too much socializing on their part, exasperated by constant texting, web-surfing, or video game playing, can gobble up their hours like popcorn, drastically eating into the time they have to devote to their work, adding to their stress. Helping them to reduce their wireless habits can certainly trigger protests, so involving them in defining times of digital availability balanced with time for schoolwork, can help set some boundaries.
More poignantly, anxiety disorders can play a significant role in a family’s life, sometimes going undetected or misidentified, just as learning differences, which require various accommodations, can go unrecognized and thus unmitigated, leading a struggling child to feel as if they are either damaged goods, or somehow less competent than their peers (please see our chapter on “Test-Taking Anxiety Strikes Again?” for even more on the ways stress can manifest).
Likewise, it also behooves mom and dad to take a thoughtful inventory of the stresses pressuring their own lives, and the ways in which those tensions might be directly, or indirectly, adding pressure to their Middle Schooler or teen’s life.
Even more fundamentally, asking ourselves how much investment we may have in our child’s academic “success” may reveal ways in which we have become overly identified with our child’s achievements or grades, feeling as if his or results were somehow our own.
So it’s important to consider how we define success in our lives, not only for ourselves, but for our child’s sake. Is getting the best result, or always being first, the only way we can feel successful in life?
While we may not relish what we discover, given what stress can do to a child’s life, it is certainly worth our time to do some soul-searching.
With a better idea, then, of the pressures and tensions driving the stress you and your child may be feeling, you can support yourself or your child with more opportunities for rest and relaxation, or the right kind of educational or emotional resources.
Should your child benefit from alternative learning modes or methods, for example, teachers, Deans and school counselors can all be of help. Talk to them.
At home, notice what makes your child feel better, and seek in all things to find the right balance between work, play and rest — because the art and “answer” of dealing with stress can be found in restoring balance to your life, as much as possible, between your expectations and your realities, your potentials and your limitations.
Through actively seeking to identify and understand the sources of stress in your family’s life, and moving to change, ease or offer assistance where necessary to balance them, you will see, as we do in our own work, palpable results. And while you may not eliminate stress entirely from your family’s life — and you won’t — by recognizing it, identifying its sources, and understanding its effects, you can proactively address them, creating changes in your Middle Schooler or teenager’s life that can invite joy and peace back into your home.
And as for tyrants, try as they might, they just don’t do well in times of joy and peace, now do they?
Darryl Sollerh is a writer, tutor and co-author of two parenting Guides with Leslie King, including “STOP YELLING, START LISTENING – Understanding Your Middle School Child: a Compassionate, Practical Guide for Moms and Dads.”
Leslie King, LCSW, has been the Crossroads’ School counselor for 20 years while maintaining a private practice, recently co-authoring “How to be the Loving, Wise Parent You want to Be…Even with Your Teenager!” with Darryl Sollerh (TheDancingParent.com).