How Our Own Back-to-School Stress Harms Our Children

Rather than fight the crowds driving all over town for more "stuff," maybe it's better to take a walk with our kids and just talk about their future.
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By Jan Bruce

If you're starting to show the signs of back-to-school stress -- giving in to the pressures that come with changing routines and schedules, last-minute shopping, childcare arrangements -- perhaps you should take a break and think about how this is affecting your child. Whipping yourself and your family into a back-to-school frenzy may actually be harmful to your kids.

A 2010 study from the American Psychological Association called "Stress in America," showed that when parents get stressed, nearly half of tweens and one-third of teens say they feel sad; more than one third of them say they feel worried; and one-quarter of tweens and 38 percent of teens say they feel frustrated.

Similar studies now show that children as young as 8 years old are experiencing some of the physical and emotional health consequences often associated with stress. These kids are also more likely to have trouble falling asleep, have headaches, eat too much or too little, feel angry or get into fights. All are stress-related symptoms.

Clearly, this is not a legacy we wish to pass along, so it's important to learn our own stress triggers and develop skills to cope with them and build resilience. But some of them are straight-up habits that are hard to break because we don't see them as stress-inducing.

Case in point: My son is leaving for his junior year of college, and so per usual I started planning our trips to the mall to get all the stuff he needs. This is how I manage his departure -- the accrual and organization of stuff.

But he made it clear he had no interest in doing this.

"Mom, I have clothes, sheets, my computer works fine. Let's enjoy the last weeks of summer together. We'll pack the night before. If I need a new raincoat, I know where to go to get one."

Of course he does (I taught him well). But this also reminded me just how stressful our obsession with having the right "stuff" in the right amounts can be, too. What's the emotional relationship we have to stuff? In my case, it seems to be related to the sense of productivity, that I'm "doing" something to help my child. But the acquisition of stuff leads to fear of losing stuff and need to replace it with more stuff. It's a stressful cycle. The very thing we think will bring us comfort and control, however, often does the opposite. And when we teach our kids to want new comforters and sweatshirts (which they work to break in so they no longer look new) are we pushing our own emotional baggage onto them?

So rather than fight the crowds driving all over town for more "stuff," maybe it's better to take a walk with our kids and just talk about their future. Maybe it's a good idea to build this into our fall schedules as we all get pulled our separate ways by obligatory school activities, homework and work schedules.

Things to strive for this year:

  1. Take a minute and count your blessings about your wonderful child and the contributions she/he makes in your life.
  2. Buy less this school year, and do more to acknowledge the significance of it.
  3. Schedule some regular sit-around time, making popcorn and hearing about how their current sweatshirt got its graffiti, instead of rushing out to buy a new one.
  4. Build some exercise into your daily routine, just as you do drive time and meetings. Don't just fit in fitness. Make time for it. Soon it will become as much a part of your routine as eating lunch!

Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium,, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.

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