Helping Your Child Deal with Stress

Cold weather, midterms, home sickness, mounting homework—this is the time of year when stress can overwhelm even the most organized and prepared of students.


As a student, I have advice about what works and what doesn’t, along with expert tips from Bethany Price, PhD, a clinical psychologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem and Mirka Ivanovic, PsyD, a psychologist at Lake Forest College.

Steps to Take

Help Identify the Cause. Once stress starts it can be like a tsunami and suddenly everything seems overwhelming. Try to help your child determine the root of their stress. “Parents can set the stage for a more productive conversation with their child by asking specific questions,” Dr. Price says. She recommends that rather than asking, “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling?” try something like, “Let’s make a list of the top three things that are bothering you. What are they?” This way, parents can help to identify exactly what’s bothering their student. It might just be one difficult class, a couple nights with inadequate sleep, or a looming paper. Help your child realize that the one thing will soon pass and there’s dry land in sight.

Send Pick-Me-Ups. A small treat or present is basically like Christmas in November when you’re stressed—cook your child’s favorite food or take them out for ice cream. My mom’s care packages always make me feel better even if she just sends a pair of warm socks and a Starbucks card.

Encourage Time for Fun. When I start to feel overwhelmed I forget to do things like exercise, go to dinner with my friends, or take an hour to watch “Gossip Girl.” If your child is the hide-and-try-to-conquer type, encourage him or her to still make time—even if it’s only an hour a day—to do things that are fun. After an hour of free time they’ll be more focused and ready to tackle that difficult assignment. Dr. Ivanovic recommends that parents model this behavior, as well, not only for your credibility, but because children tend to respond to stress in ways that they have seen from their parents.

Unhelpful Habits

Helping vs. Hovering. While we know you’re concerned, checking in all of the time can do more harm than good. During my first year of college my parents would text me multiple times a day to see how I was doing. Having to tell them I’d only written one paragraph since they last asked, or that I did a subpar job on my biology exam only added to my anxiety. Simple and encouraging texts, such as “Good luck!” or “I’m really proud of you,” are great ways to show your support and concern without being overwhelming.

It’s Their Homework. We are the ones in school, not you. I have friends whose parents help them with research or edit their papers for them. While you may be helping her now, you’re hurting her in the future. If your child is in high school, it’s okay to offer advice and tips with papers and applications, but in a few years she’ll be in college and will have to do it herself. And if your child is in college, she’s only a few short years from the real world and the last thing you want is her sending you her press releases to edit when she gets her first job in PR.

“Overall, parents who are attentive, supportive and encourage open discussion with their child about their difficulties are parents who have kids who are willing to talk to them about problems,” Dr. Ivanovic explains. “As kids grow older, it is especially important for a parent to listen and try to understand before offering advice or passing on judgment.”


What else can you do to help? Check out 5 Tips for Students to Manage Stress and pass it along to your children.

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