Back to school can be stressful for students—and parents need to look for the signs

(Published Aug. 31, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

For parents, a new school may reduce stress as the kids leave home for the better part of the day. But for students, it could be a different story. 

A new school, or just a new school year, can bring on subtle signs of stress and anxiety which can lead to trouble.

Simple things, like sleep trouble, can cause—or be a sign of—problems for a student, according to Emma K. Adam, a Northwestern professor of human development and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

“That’s something that is both a reflection of stress and contributes to more stress,” Adam said. “So that’s one area I would suggest intervening.”

Sleep problems can be caused by something as simple as a return to a school schedule, and they can create a host of problems for the student.

“When you’re thinking about the back to school transition, it’s important to get a child’s routine on track prior to beginning school,” Adam said. “It can lead to a form of jet lag to suddenly switch your child’s schedule to a much earlier wake up time. When they have that jet lag, essentially when they’re sleepy or they’re short on sleep [and] they’re less able to engage in social relationships.”

Adam said research has shown adolescents tend to fall asleep later, meaning getting a solid sleep is difficult even under the best of situations when facing early school days.

“There is, in adolescence, a biological shift where they don’t get sleepy until later at night and that runs up against the early start times for high schoolers,” Adam said. 

“It’s not just the social demands that are keeping adolescents up late, it’s actually harder for them to fall asleep,” she said. “But you can slowly change you adolescents to get them on track to a slightly earlier bedtime.”

Adam said some adolescents don’t want to talk about emotional problems, so they hide what they’re feeling. Even so, parents shouldn’t be afraid to talk to their child if they see behavioral changes.

“By adolescence, kids can be good at hiding emotions,” she said. “But parents can see it turn into anxiety and depression, or the adolescent may be less interested in activities.

“Some kids can express stress by externalizing problems, through anger and lashing out. Whenever you see a major change in a child, it might be time to sit them down and find out what’s going on in their lives.”

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