Navigating the Emotional Rollercoaster: Helping Your Middle Schooler Manage Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety and stress in middle school is real. At this very moment, your kid could be biting their nails about a math test, where to sit at lunch, the spring formal, or being assigned a new partner in gym. Adolescence is a roller coaster of emotion, and middle school is only the first loop. The earlier you get a handle on helping your middle schooler navigate stress, the better off they’ll be.

Signs of stressed-out middle schoolers

Don’t expect your middle schooler to show signs of stress like you do. Pre-teens and teenagers display stress differently from their adult counterparts. For example, you may yell or show other signs of irritation (impatience, hurry). In contrast, your middle schooler could tend to retreat when overly stressed. Of course, you’ll want to watch for blatant signs such as crying and aggression, but be mindful of the subtle indicators, too. An article from Very Well Mind lists ten signs that your middle schooler is stressed.

Here are a few you may not have considered:

Frequent illness

Have you noticed your middle schooler having frequent headaches, colds, or body aches?

Academic problems

Did they bring home an unexpected report card?

Sleep issues

Are they exhausted regardless of going to bed on time?

General sense of worry

Is your middle schooler bombarding you with questions such as “What if this [bad] thing happens?” or “What if they don’t like me?”

Causes of stress in middle school

Stress does not discriminate. Anyone can experience anxiety. Whether a baby wailing from hunger or a coworker who (literally) pulls out their hair over tense phone calls, stress can have many triggers.

Oxford Learning says the following can stress your middle schooler:

Too much homework

Unless they’re in a gifted or accelerated program (and maybe not even then), middle schoolers should not be assigned mounds of homework each night.  There are exceptions when extra homework is acceptable, but if you sense your child regularly receives more than the average workload, address it with their teacher.

Upcoming tests

Have you ever been nervous about a presentation at work? Then you know how your middle schooler feels about the upcoming test they can’t stop talking about. 

Busy schedules

We all need downtime, time to decompress and relax from the day’s events. It’s good to plan extracurricular activities for your middle schooler. However, this can lead to stress when not adequately balanced between school and relaxation time. 

New environments

New schools are classic stress triggers for students. Middle school is a big transition from elementary school, and enduring it without the comfort of familiar friends can make things more challenging. 

Changes to their routine

A new sibling, marriage, divorce, or bus route are among the many variables that can impact your middle schooler’s schedule. These changes can negatively influence your child when proper preparation doesn’t occur. 

How to manage stress at school

You likely won’t be around when your middle schooler encounters anxiety and stressful situations at school. While often not emergencies, these situations still require being handled with care. The best way to help your pre-teen navigate stress independently is to arm them with healthy coping mechanisms.

When overwhelmed, they can call or text you or another trusted adult, or you can encourage them to speak with their teacher or school counselor.

Tell your middle schooler to ask for a hall pass so they can take a quick break to clear their head. While walking to the bathroom or water fountain, they can also take deep breaths, say a prayer, or steal a few quiet moments to regroup in the hallway.

Meeting Street recommends grabbing a snack or hydrating during moments of stress and anxiety, stating that “when the body is low on energy, it’s easier to feel stressed or anxious.”

Teaching healthy coping mechanisms to middle schoolers is crucial. They’ll likely continue using them as they mature into adults.  

How to manage stress at home

Parents are a child’s first teachers. To set your middle schooler up for success in managing stress, be intentional about how you respond to their stress and anxiety triggers.

The Mayo Clinic urges parents to understand their teen’s stress, listen before speaking, and demonstrate stress responses through coaching.

Instead of issuing an immediate reprimand for salty behavior, make sure you know why your kid is acting out. It may not be what you think.

Listen before you speak. Once you notice anxious behavior in your child, ask them what’s wrong and listen for the response before giving your solution or advice. It’s essential to provide them with the space to express the problem in their own words. 

Once you’ve taught your middle schooler appropriate stress reducers, coach them to remind them when and how to use them. For example, you might say, “I see you’re upset about something. Remember to breathe before acting out any decisions.” 

The American Psychological Association advocates for kids solving their own “low-stakes” problems so they’re better equipped and confident about managing these situations in the future.

Another tactic they promote is monitoring screen time. Social media is a common trigger for anxiety among youth. Monitoring or decreasing the time your middle schooler spends online can benefit their well-being. 

Highlighting the positives is also an excellent way to combat stress at home. In times when your child says they aren’t good at something, remind them how much they’ve improved. If your daughter complains that something doesn’t “look right” on her, pull something from her closet that you know she feels beautiful and confident in. For every negative they attempt to use about themselves, cancel it out with a positive. 

Remember, the earlier you teach your middle schooler how to cope with stress and anxiety, wherever/whenever it occurs, the better off they’ll be.

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Willaim Wright

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