School Stress SOS

By: Bailey McAdams, M.ED., LPC


Signs, Symptoms, and Strategies

As this school year kicked off, I am reminded that never before in the 15 years I have been a counselor, have I seen so many stressed out kids.  I am currently seeing more and more children and adolescents with symptoms of anxiety and depression related to school stress than any other diagnosis.  One of the primary difficulties in identifying this is that it looks so very different in every child that I see.  As a result, the stress often goes untreated or supported until it has manifested itself into something much bigger.  So… I thought it would be helpful to highlight some of the signs to look for so that parents and educators can be a part of the prevention of anxiety and depression vs. intervention/putting out fires’ mode.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Difficulty with sleep either initiating or sustaining. It is important to assess when the behavior began.  If it seemed to have increased since the beginning of school, that is a clear indicator that school stress is a factor.  Some children just require less sleep or are sleep avoiders any old time, not just when school is in session.  That may be related to something all together different.  I saw a meme over the summer that rang so true for me as both a parent and a clinician, “The number one cause of dehydration in children is bedtime”.  This made me laugh but is so very true.  Some of these behaviors can be seeking to delay bed time in an effort to hold off the following school day.
  • Changes in appetite-You may observe they are either eating significantly more or significantly less related to the beginning of school or with an increase in school related assignments. Often times stress can suppress an individual’s appetite; however the dopamine hit that we receive when we eat certain snacks or foods can lead to mindless overeating as a negative coping tool.
  • School refusal behaviors
    • Somatic complaints to get out of going to school (headache, stomachache, “I’m sick”).
    • Separation anxiety is either heightened or out of character for the child.
    • Additional out of character behaviors for your child (ie: withdrawal from peers, conduct issues at school, refusal to go to school/participate in school)
    • Frequent reports of negative events occurring at school. (Bullies, negative interactions with authority figures, few positive reports)
  • Gastrointestinal complaints with no physical explanation. (Also could be a school refusal behavior)
  • Extreme emotional responses. If you notice that your child or teen is “over reacting” or you feel that they are crying over something that you may consider “small” this may be an indicator that they are heightened in their emotions.  An example for a young child might be crying because you are out of milk.  Hint:  It’s not about the milk.


Here are a few of my favorites for any age:

  • Calm down jar: Take a used water bottle, fill it up most of the way with warm water, and add glitter glue, loose glitter, and food coloring to your heart’s desire. Super glue the lid to secure the contents.  Encourage your child or teen or even yourself to shake it as hard as you can and then watch all of the contents calmly float to the bottom.  Take slow deep breaths as you watch.  Check out the YouTube video “Just Breathe” by Julie Bayer Salzman and Josh Salzman as a supportive tool for this exercise.
  • Take 5 Breathing: Spread the fingers of one hand into a fan and place it on your leg or a table. Using your index finger of the other hand, trace your fanned hand.  As you trace up, breathe in through your nose, as your trace down, breathe out through your mouth.  Your child will notice that inside their inner fingers feels sensitive which provides both a sensory/grounding and relaxation benefit.
  • Processing Outlets: Draw or write your feelings then tear them up and throw them away. We are not meant to keep or commemorate the things that hurt or stress us.  It is a good way to take charge of our feelings and provide ourselves with a good outlet.
  • Grounding/Mindfulness: Use your 5 senses to connect to what is actually going on around you, literally in the room you are in vs. where your thoughts/fears/worries decide to take you.  Ask yourself what you can feel? What does it feel like? What do I hear? What can I see that I haven’t really noticed before? What do I smell? Take a drink of water? What does it feel like or taste like?
  • Resources:
    • “Anxiety Workbook for Teens” by Lisa M. Schab (ages 13+)
    • “The Mindfulness Skills Activity Book for Children” by Chris Willard, PsyD and Mitch Abblett, PhD. (ages 7+)
    • “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids” by Lawrence E. Shapiro, PhD. and Robin K. Sprague, LCPC (ages 10+)
    • “Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Kids” by Jennifer J. Solin, PhD. and Christina L. Kress, MSW (ages 7-12)
    • “How Do You Doodle” by Elisa Grave (ages 7+)
    • “Hello, Happy!” by Dr. Sharie Coombes (ages 7+)

It is always helpful to know that when this stress impairs your child’s ability to function in day to day life, it may be beneficial to speak with their pediatrician or primary care physician and consult a Licensed Professional Counselor.  A benefit to your child receiving care from a counselor is that they receive support and coping strategies and you receive a support network where you can learn parenting tools including how to talk with them about their stress and assist them with implementing their tools.  Who knows, your stress may be reduced as a result.  Win! Win!

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