Managing school-related stress for all ages

By Elisabeth J. Luu, Ed.M.


Many parents idealize the international school experience before they arrive in Shanghai. They imagine all the rich experiences their children will have, such as studying a new language, or making new friends from different countries. While an international school education will provide your child with unique opportunities, it can also challenge and push them in ways that their previous school experiences never did.  But once here, new social environments, difficult foreign language classes, and high academic expectations can all conspire to shake up even the most unflappable kids.  

A relatively modern problem, school related stress stems from internal fears and anxieties that students face about some situation or experience at school. In a center of commerce and industry like Shanghai, where over 30,000 expat children from nearly 40 different countries are studying in various international and local schools, school-related stress is a growing concern. According to counselors at the Community Center Shanghai (CCS), students grappling with school-related stress accounts for a significant portion of family counseling cases.


Learning how to feel – small children

Even the littlest students can feel stressed. Small children often become anxious in response to new routines or new environments. It can be especially marked if they are starting school just after relocating to Shanghai. There are so many new experiences to absorb, like having to get up on time every morning; riding the school bus; staying in school the whole day; separating from their parents. Being an expat can add to this list of “firsts”, such as interacting with children or teachers who are from different countries and cultures, learning a new language, or even eating different foods at school.

“Parents should watch for any changes in their children’s typical patterns of behavior, which could indicate some form of stress,” says CCS counselor Leo Lazo, who is also a psychologist at one of Shanghai’s international schools. For example, little ones are more likely to refuse to get up in the morning or to go to school. A cheerful child might become sad, withdrawn, or even aggressive. Another good indicator is mood on weekends versus weekdays. “They’re quite happy during the weekend, but when Sunday comes along, attitudes can suddenly change as they know they have to go to school the next day,” says Sophie de Fauconval, a CCS counselor who works primarily with children.

Up until the age of eight or nine, children don’t always understand their feelings and may lack the ability to communicate them. It isn’t uncommon for stress to trigger physical symptoms in small children, such as tummy aches and headaches.

One way to help small children to express themselves is to teach them basic “feeling” words, such as happy, sad, mad or lonely. Read books or watch TV together and discuss how different characters might be feeling and why. Use “feeling” vocabulary regularly in your home so they understand that feelings – good and bad — are a normal part of life: “Mommy is mad because she lost her keys”. Ask them how they are feeling when you see their emotions change: “Are you happy now because we are having ice cream?” These small lessons will help them recognize and express how they feel, and understand that other people have feelings too.


Complaining is communicating – middle school students

Upper elementary school and middle school students are more capable of communicating their feelings and are more likely to tell their parents or teachers about problems. This is fortunate, as the social and academic landscape at school can offer more challenges.

“As kids get older, the work load and pressures increase at school,” explains Lazo. “There is much more pressure to get good grades, to excel in sports, and to be popular.” Those pressures can lead to anxieties or fears that can lead to poor academic performance. In addition to actually complaining about school, older kids may manifest many of the same signs of stress found in small kids: stomach upset and a loss of enthusiasm. Burnt out older students may stop doing homework, skip classes, or even withdraw from school activities altogether.

To help older students navigate the increased workloads and commitments that come junior high and middle school, help them establish good study and time management habits early on. First, have kids create a distraction-free study area. Remove phones, tablets, and games, and turn off the television. If your child uses a laptop for homework, insist that social networking sites, Skype and other sources of interruption are closed. Help them with time management techniques, such as using a calendar to plan backwards from major tests and projects. These techniques will help them manage their time now and later in life.


Social problems are school problems – teenagers

As children approach middle school and enter the teen years, social issues become much more important.  “Going to school and not having friends is big problem,” explains de Fauconval.  “A child can sometimes fail academically because he or she doesn’t have friends in school.” In addition to the regular complexities of being of teenager, expat life can make matters worse. Sometimes children stop including repatriating friends in social activities, knowing that they will be gone soon anyway. Social issues can cause the most pain, and leave isolated teens depressed and fearful of going to school. Some kids become angry and act out aggressively, fighting or arguing with schoolmates in person or online. Online aggression can be especially damaging because it is public and persistent.  

Parents should make a habit of checking in with older children’s moods and attitudes towards school and friends, especially during relocation and repatriation. Ask for details about assignments and activities, and make note of friends’ names and follow up when work is due or social events are scheduled. If kids don’t seem happy when talking about friends or if there’s no sense of enjoyment from school or extracurricular activities then there may be a problem. Parents should also stay vigilant for serious signs, such as sleep troubles, crying episodes, or refusal to go to school or to do homework. If you are concerned, make an appointment with teachers for a better understanding of what may be happening at school.


Overcommitted and burnt out – high school

In high school, the pressure to succeed academically is at an alltime high, as students are entering the years where grades determine where they might go and what they might do after graduation. “At this stage, high school kids can buckle when they feel like they can’t live up to standards,” says Carrie Jones, Director of Counseling at CCS. “In most international schools in Shanghai, these standards are often higher than those back in their home countries.” When high school students need counseling, it is often because they are overworked, trying to augment their CVs with too many sports, clubs or other extra-curricular activities. It doesn’t leave much room for downtime with families and friends, leading to burn out and exhaustion.


Encouraging your children to push themselves and succeed is a natural part of parenting. You want them to achieve their full potential, and discover new abilities and proficiencies through new activities. But how hard you push can be the difference between helping and hurting. Some parents can exacerbate problems for overextended teens. Signing students up for extra tutoring or intensive programs that are designed to boost test scores to ensure acceptance to the best colleges and universities can create anxiety and lead to burn out.  The pressure can scuttle the very goal that parents are aiming for. “Kids get blocked or frozen from stress when they have to start university applications and choosing schools because they’re afraid of failure,” explains de Fauconval, who helps many European students manage the stress of this process.

Even when parents don’t make direct demands on children, unspoken expectations can be a powerful influence. “Most parents working here are quite successful, both financially and professionally, so by the very nature of their jobs, there is silent pressure for children to follow in their parents’ footsteps,” says de Fauconval.  As the children of CEO’s, vice presidents, and highranking executives, these teens know what it takes to get to those top positions and feel the pressure to be as successful as their parents. Often, they are coached from a young age that success is important, and are programmed to excel in all areas.


Fitting in

In most international high schools in Shanghai, where high academic expectations are the norm rather than the exception, stress can also stem from students’ desires to fit in or to stand out from the crowd. “Everybody knows who has the best grades and who has the lowest grades,” says one eleventh-grader, when asked about her experience in a popular international school. With everyone knowing each other’s academic standing, a pecking order of sorts is inevitable, and makes matters worse for struggling students who are looked down on for low grades.

Intense pressure at the high school level can cause students to develop what one counselor calls “perfectionist personalities”. But when students feel like they can’t live up to these standards, it can cause a break down. Overwhelmed older students may refuse to do school work or attend classes, become depressed and anxious, develop sleep problems and eating disorders, or manifest OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) tendencies.  In the worst-case scenarios, when anxieties or fears are not addressed, teens can turn to alcohol or drugs to numb bad feelings, or, in rare cases, attempt suicide. 

Fortunately, within the Shanghai expat community, parents, friends, teachers and other school professionals are more alert to the potential impact of school-related stress on children. They are generally more vigilant of problems that children may have in school, with friends, or at home because they are all aware of the unique pressures of expat life. In this respect, parents here are more equipped to help their children deal with any potential problems stemming from school-related stress.  “For teachers and parents alike, it’s all about understanding the individual needs of your child or as student,” says Lazo.  

Or, one expat mother puts it, “It’s about loving your child and helping them to achieve their greatest potential — not your greatest potential”.


What Parents Can Do 

  • Check in, often. Ask your child how they’re feeling about school and friends
  • Evaluate their daily rituals. Observe their usual patterns of behavior, and notice any changes over time
  • Notice their mood before and after school. Do they come home from school dejected and sad?
  • Network at school. Get to know their teachers and parents who might be able to share insights about the situations your child is concerned about.
  • Find out who is who. Find out who their friends are and who they don’t get along with. Support their need to make friends by creating opportunities for them to participate in play dates, parties, or sports. 
  • Validate their feelings. Instead of saying “You shouldn’t feel that way,” confirm or reflect what your child has said with phrases like, “Sounds like you were feeling _________,” or “That makes sense,” or “I can see why you would feel that way.”  Then ask, “What can I do to make it better?” In the case of inappropriate behavior, say, “What could you have done differently?” Give them more appropriate alternative ways of responding. 
  • Be a role model for feelings. Children do not always know how to express sadness, frustration, or anxiety. Teach them how to express themselves in healthy ways. Model the behavior yourself, and be consistent. 
  • Let them know they’re loved. Let them know that performance is not a prerequisite of their acceptance. Avoid saying, “You could have done better”. 
  • Seek help. When you’re unsure of how to help, don’t wait or ignore important signs.  Seek help from teachers, mental health professionals or others who are experienced with helping children and families cope with school-related stress.


 This article first appeared in the CARE magazine published by Community Center Shanghai, and permission was given to ShanghaiMamas to reprint.