Middle school students are faced with challenges each and every day. Whether these challenges come from home, school, friends, or other environmental factors, stress can overwhelm kids.

Stress is an uncomfortable feeling someone develops when they’re scared, angry, worried, or frustrated, which affects their mood and body in many different ways. What’s important to remember is that children and adolescents experience stress the same way adults do.

Middle school students can be very susceptible to stress because of the immense changes they’re experiencing physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually during these years.

A middle school student may be experiencing stressors such as homework load, a busy schedule, peer pressure, test anxiety, grades, image concerns, lack of support, and changes in routine. This does not include any stressors occurring at home or other out-of-school environments.

So what should parents look for as warning signs that their child is experiencing stress? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, many students who are feeling overwhelmed and stressed may exhibit the following symptoms:

• Frequent stomach aches and/or headaches

• Changes in appetite

• Chronic worrying

• Nail biting

• Changes in mood/mood swings

• Fatigue and increased desire to sleep

• Sadness/depression

• Retreating to bedroom/withdrawn

• Self-harm

• “Checking out” from responsibilities

• Frequent absences

• Physical aggression

• Quick temper

• Frequent crying

• Difficulty sleeping

• Lying to teachers/parents

• Failing grades

• Substance abuse

Although many middle school students experience stress, there are healthy ways for parents and students to develop coping strategies to manage it. Parents can help their children by teaching them time management skills; ensuring they aren’t overscheduled; encouraging sleep, exercise, and healthy eating; monitoring parental pressure, encouraging outdoor play, and allowing the child to have fun.

Parents can also assist in identifying stressors their children may be experiencing by asking questions and beginning a conversation. A parent could say, “I’ve noticed something has been bothering you” or “You mentioned you have a lot of homework lately; how are you feeling about that?” to get the conversation flowing. Just helping pinpoint the stressor will give your child a sense of relief.

By identifying the stressor(s), students can avoid the situations that cause them stress. Examples would be avoiding people who might be a bad influence, staying away from places where they’re likely to get in trouble, and avoiding things that may upset them. When they know their stressors, students can choose to not be around those people, places, and things.

Lastly, taking care of your body plays a very important role in managing stress. As mentioned above, exercise, active relaxation, eating healthy and sleep are vital for lowering stress levels in middle schoolers.

Exercise is the most important part of a stress management plan. Many people do not see the need for exercise nor have the time for it, but when you are stressed you need exercise the most. After you exercise and use up stress hormones, you think better and are able to focus and learn more.

Active relaxation is important because your body can only use the relaxed OR emergency nervous system, not both. This 4-8 deep breathing technique helps aid in relaxation:

• Sit or lie down and place your hands on your belly. Take a deep breath, trying to expand your belly pulling your hands apart. Take a full breath counting to 4, hold your breath counting to 8, and then slowly let out counting to 8. Try this technique 10 times, focusing on your breathing and giving your full concentration.

Eating healthy will help keep students alert throughout the day and their mood steady. People who eat mainly junk food often have highs and lows in their energy levels, which create more stress on their bodies. Eating a healthy, well balanced diet will aid in stress management.

Sleep aids in thinking clearly and mood management. When students are tired, they can’t learn as well and will often be impatient and irritable. Students can improve their sleep by going to sleep at the same time each night, taking a hot shower one hour before bedtime to relax, putting away all electronics one hour before bed, and allowing some wind-down time before lying in bed.

Creating and following a stress management plan will help students lower their stress levels and deal with the daily challenges they are faced with. One of the best ways to be happy and successful is to manage stress well.

This column is written by Kelsey Weber, LSW, school social worker for Youth First, Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families. Youth First provides 55 Master’s level social workers to 76 schools in 10 Indiana counties. Over 38,000 youth and families per year have access to Youth First’s school social work and afterschool programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success.

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