All kids experience some stress when they start a new school year. But how much is normal?

Like adults, children get stressed. Children’s stress can come from a lot of sources. They’re under pressure to make good grades. They want to live up to their parents’ expectations. They may want to do well in sports, make friends or be popular.

Most of the time, children manage stress well. However, some children haven’t developed good coping skills. That makes dealing with stress for a long time or having high levels of stress harder for them than for adults.

“When children start a new grade, it’s a lot like adults starting a new job each year,” says Kimberly Sirl, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “It’s normal for children to experience stress. But some children don’t adjust to a new class or teacher as well as others do.”

Tuning In

When children and parents don’t deal with school stress, children may develop symptoms of depression or anxiety. They also may find ways to avoid going to school.

If a child is under a lot of stress, he may:

  • be grumpy
  • complain of stomachaches
  • cry or feel sad a lot
  • eat more or less than he used to
  • have more trouble in school
  • not sleep well

“If your child has these symptoms for more than two weeks, you should talk to her pediatrician,” Dr. Sirl says. “It can also be good to talk to her school’s counselor. The counselor can send you reports on how she’s doing during the day. He also might be able to get her extra help in the classroom if she needs it. Sometimes, learning problems cause kids to be overly stressed.”

Anger Or Anxiety?

In very young children, anger and anxiety can be signs they’re stressed out.

“Children spend so much energy at school trying to control their moods and behavior,” Dr. Sirl says. “By the time they get home, they’re emotionally and mentally worn out. This can lead to an ‘emotional explosion.’”

If you see this a lot with your child, Dr. Sirl suggests finding out what causes him to get angry. For example, being in a car with everyone talking at once or having the radio very loud can be too much for some children and cause an outburst. For other children, a change in their routine after a very stressful day may make them upset. You may need to talk to a pediatric psychologist if simple efforts don’t help your child deal with stress.

Just remember, kids can have bad days just like grown-ups do. Help is available if school-related stress is causing serious problems in a child’s—and a family’s—life.

Concerned, but don’t know where to turn? Get more information about kids and stress from the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Family Resource Center. Call 314.454.5437 and press “5.”

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Expert Advice