By Peg Rosen
Middle school and high school are full of social and academic challenges, especially for kids with learning and attention issues. Here are tips to prevent your child from feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Many teens with learning and attention issues don’t realize they’re feeling stress. Keep your questioning low-key—taking a walk or going for a drive together is a good way to get conversation flowing. Mention you’ve noticed something has been bothering her. Help her put a name on what it might be. “Is all this talk about the SATs making you feel uneasy?” Simply talking about feelings can be a relief.
A big term paper can seem overwhelming, especially for teens with organizational and attention issues. Breaking the project down into chunks—“this week focus on doing an outline, next week look for sources”—can make the task more manageable. Keep a calendar or checklist with steps she can check off. Each success will help her feel less overwhelmed about what’s next.
If your teen will be taking a new step, such starting to volunteer, do some legwork ahead of time. Encourage her to ask for a list of tasks she’ll be doing. Practice basic social skills, such as saying hello, shaking hands, and keeping eye contact. Stop by and see what the place is like, where she’ll be working and how busy it is. If the new experience seems familiar, your teen won’t feel nearly as much anxiety about trying something new.
Most teens feel some stress when facing a social event or some other challenging situation. But they eventually dive in because they remember past successes, which give them the confidence. Teens with learning and attention issues need that same motivation—but success is often harder to come by. Watch for opportunities to praise her accomplishments. It could be for something as simple as scheduling her own haircut. Knowing success may help her feel less overwhelmed and less panicked when facing bigger challenges.
Suggest phrases she can repeat when facing stressful situations. “I am not afraid to try” or “I can do this” are two good examples. These thoughts will crowd out negative talk (“I’m too stupid to do this!”) and repeating the words over and over can be soothing.
Coming home to an organized place and rituals that stay the same can give your child security after a busy day at high school. Help her keep her school supplies and homework space in order. Keep a calendar with homework due dates, afterschool activities, and upcoming appointments. Go over them with her every few nights. Create some structure for weekends as well. Too much time without a schedule can make teens feel anxious.
Stress can build up like steam in a locomotive. Help your teen find ways to release that pressure. It could be jamming on the guitar out in the garage or painting in a quiet room upstairs. Exercise is also vital, whether it’s going for a run, attending a yoga class, practicing with the soccer team, or working out at the Y.
For the teen who struggles in school, being good at something like volleyball can boost self-esteem. Volunteering and helping others can take their minds off their own challenges. Extracurricular activities also give structure to the afternoons and can provide stress-busting release. Too many activities, however, can create stress instead of helping with it. Help your teen decide what she wants to do with her free time and encourage her to ease in gradually.
You may simply want her to give her best effort. But she may think she has to get A’s. Tell her what you actually expect—that will lessen her stress. Or, for example, you might want her to “start being more responsible.” But is that abstract concept reasonable, considering her capabilities? She might need you to tell her concrete ways to show that she’s being responsible. It’s hard to cross the finish line if you don’t know where it is!
Find a class where your teen can learn yoga, meditation or deep breathing. Mental health experts who specialize in treating children with learning and attention issues can also help with stress management.
Grade school is full of challenges, especially for kids with learning and attention issues. Here are some tips to prevent your child from feeling stressed.
How can you find a good therapist or counselor for your child with learning and attention issues? We asked the Understood community where they’ve found help. And our experts added in their advice, too. Check out our top tips.
Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping and Martha Stewart.
Elizabeth Harstad, M.D., M.P.H., is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.
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