School can be a ton of fun, but for many kids, it can also be a pretty big source of stress and anxiety as well.

I know that face. Photo from iStock.

A little stress now and then is an unfortunate fact of life, but it seems like kids are more stressed than ever these days. Overwhelming, toxic stress can actually affect how a child's brain grows and develops and can increase the risk for mental health issues later in life.


"The good news is the brain is malleable," said Bruce Compas, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University who just completed a major review of childhood coping strategies. Good coping skills can be taught and, once learned, can benefit a child for the rest of their lives, Compas said in a press release.

We reached out to experts to see what advice they'd have for parents who think their kids might be struggling with stress or anxiety. Here is what they had to say:

1. Be specific about what you've noticed about your child's stress level.

When a parent notices their kid is stressed or anxious, it can be tempting to jump to conclusions or get caught up in wondering "what if." "Don't go down the rabbit hole," says Debra Kissen, clinical psychologist and director at Light on Anxiety Treatment Center of Chicago.

Instead, parents should focus on the specific behaviors they've noticed. If your kid suddenly doesn't want to go to parties, for example, approach any potential conversation on that level, then build solutions around the one stressor.

2. Don't just reassure: problem-solve.

"It'll be OK" might seem like three magic words, but kindly reassurances aren't the same permanent fixes, says Jill Emanuele, senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. Instead, parents should talk with their kid and try to come up with a solution to whatever's bothering them.

"Help your child to acknowledge the specific worries with a statement like, 'I hear that you are worried about this. How can I help?'" Emanuele says.

Multiple experts, including Compas, echoed this sentiment. In general, it's better for kids to adapt or confront problems rather than avoid or repress their feelings.

3. Plan and practice!

"My one piece of advice: practice!" said Dawn Huebner, a psychologist who's written multiple books, with a new one ("Outsmarting Worry") coming out in October.

Don't avoid awkward conversations, says Huebner, and once you've come up with a potential solution, try it out. For example, if your kid is nervous about a new school, you could see if school administrators will let you take a tour before the school year begins. Then follow up in a few days to see how the plan worked.

4. Repeat the serenity prayer.

"Change the things you can, accept the things you can't, and have the wisdom to know the difference between them," Compas says.

There's a lot of good thinking in that old prayer. Not every problem or stressor is going to have an easy solution, and it can get frustrating to continually beat your head on a brick wall. Sometimes the change will need to come from within, whether that's adapting expectations or trying out a different outlook.

5. Don't ignore the bright side.

Tackling the problem and facing your fears is a good idea, but looking at positives can help too, says Amy Przeworski, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University. School can mean new friends and new adventures. A little encouragement doesn't hurt, either.

"To remind my daughter of just how strong and brave she is, I often put a note in her lunch bag on the first few days of school to tell her that I love her, that I'm proud of her and that I can't wait to hear the amazing things that she has done at school," she says.

6. Try to stay calm and collected yourself.

Kids, especially little ones, can key in on what a parent is feeling. If you yourself are nervous or stressed, your anxiety might rub off on the child.

"What we know is that when my attachment figure, my mommy, my daddy, my grandma who raises me is calm, I feel safer and more sound and ready to learn," says Laura Martin, a mental health specialist at the Verner Center for Early Learning.

7. Remember that you're not alone.

It can feel overwhelming to see your kid struggling, but remember that you don't have to do this alone. There are many resources out there on sites like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to help parents talk to their kids or find help. Mental health professionals can help too.

8. Finally, don't forget about happiness.

Mark Holder is a researcher at the University of British Columbia. He doesn't study stress or anxiety — his focus is happiness. He says this:

"My advice for children’s well-being, if I am only allowed one piece, is to support your children in nurturing their quality friendships," Holder says. "Whether this is encouraging visits with friends, joining a sports team or hiking club, or volunteering with others, activities that foster meaningful friendships are critical to children’s well-being."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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