At the start of every school year, they pop up on Facebook posts and Instagram feeds like colorful bursts of embodied enthusiasm. The proverbial “First Day of School” photos flood onto social media sites, traverse text messaging networks, and file into e-mail inboxes across the country to the delight of many a grandparent.
Invariably, these memorable images of bright-eyed students convey a fresh eagerness and optimism that often coincides with new beginnings. The backpacks are loaded with neatly organized binders. The hair is combed back, braided up or buzzed down. The uniforms are crisply pressed with no traces of any recess or lunchroom residue to be found. The slate is clean and opportunities abound. They are dressed for success, and no obstacles to that success are in view… at least not yet.
Then, school actually gets underway, and with each passing day, the stress gradually begins to mount. What once looked like a grand and inviting vista of opportunity and future achievement now looms gravely over the students like an impenetrable wall of homework, tests, projects, practices, jammed lockers, strained friendships, demanding schedules, demanding teachers and demanding parents. Sure, there is plenty of fun and frivolity to be had amidst all of the challenges of an average school day, but what often shows up at home in the evening are the frazzled and frustrated countenances of our once happy children. We, then, begin to ask ourselves questions: “Where are the shining smiles that lit up those “First Day of School” photos?” “Are all of the kids as stressed out as mine seems to be?” “Is it time to schedule some parent/teacher conferences to try to get a handle on this, or should I wait to see if things settle down in time?”
In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to answer some common and important questions concerning academic stress. I will also offer some time-tested principles that I hope will encourage and strengthen you as you walk with your kids through the ups and downs of everyday student life.
Sometimes, just the simple knowledge that we are not alone in our more challenging experiences can be helpful. According to a USA Today article summarizing the results of a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), “Teens across the USA are feeling high levels of stress that they say negatively affect every aspect of their lives.”
This annual APA survey entitled Stress in America also found that stress among teens often rivals, even exceeds, that of adults, and very few in either category are effectively managing their stress. The answer to the question, “Is it just my kid?” is a resounding “No!”
So, we should feel much better now, right? It is just a fact of life that we are all stressed out and virtually none of us are handling it well. Can we finally get back to our giant bowls of Blue Bell and continue binge-watching on Netflix until 2:00 AM?
Of course, this would be the opportune time to highlight the well-documented health risks associated with excessive, unmanaged stress such as insufficient or listless sleep cycles, unhealthy eating habits, and inadequate exercise and physical activity.
While the research in these three areas is voluminous and generally conclusive, what is most compelling about the interplay of stress with sleep, diet and fitness is the circular nature of their relationships. Can excessive stress directly contribute to sleeplessness, or is it the other way around?
And the same is true for eating habits and physical fitness. Students and parents who are riddled with prolonged, extreme levels of stress typically do not sleep well, eat well or get enough exercise. And… you guessed it… those who do not sleep well, eat well or engage in enough physical activity tend to struggle with excessive, unmitigated stress.
This is certainly not new information for most of us. And these common effects of stress only scratch the surface of what many students and parents actually experience from day to stressful day. Again, according to the APA:
- Forty percent of teens report feeling irritable or angry and 36 percent report feeling nervous or anxious.
- Almost one-third (32 percent) of teens say stress makes them feel as though they could cry.
- Many teens report feeling overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent) as a result of stress.
- More than one-third of teens report fatigue/feeling tired (36 percent) and having lain awake at night because of stress (35 percent).
- Nearly one-third of teens (32 percent) say they experience headaches, 26 percent report changes in sleeping habits and 21 percent say they experience upset stomach or indigestion as a result of stress.
- Nearly one-quarter of teens (23 percent) have skipped a meal because of stress.
Nothing adds to the already elevated stress level of parents like seeing their children under duress. The common protective instinct is to aggressively pursue measures that would quickly relieve the stress they are experiencing. Parents can even feel a certain degree of resentment toward whatever or whomever they identify as the sources of their children’s stress. And, what is the most prominent source of stress among children in general and teens in particular? Surprise, surprise… it is, of course, school and concerns related to school.
According to the Stress in America survey, “teens report that during the school year they have an average stress level of 5.8 on a 10-point scale, compared with a level of 4.6 during the summer.” In addition, “the most commonly reported sources of stress are school (83 percent), [and] getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school (69 percent).”
On day 1 of the school year, students are “dressed for success”, but it doesn’t take long before the picture changes and they become “stressed for success.” By the time they are half way through the first quarter, the pressure on many students has already escalated to what seems like an unbearable level. What is clear to most parents is that their children weren’t like this when school started. What is often less clear is what they should do about it.
Parents generally know that a certain amount of stress is normal and can serve as a good motivator for higher performance in their kids. They also expect their children to experience some added pressure while they are in school. But when the pressure begins to appear persistent, unhealthy, and unmanageable, a protective instinct kicks in and many parents begin looking for direct causes and constructing defensive barriers. Again, more internal questions emerge: “Is the homework load simply too much?” “Do the teachers even realize the amount of stress they are causing?” “Is the administration aware of how my child is being treated by her classmates?” “Do the coaches understand how challenging it is to manage all of the practice and game schedules while maintaining good grades?”
Questions like these fill the minds of many parents who see their children struggling under the weight of stress. Unfortunately, the resulting action steps often move in unfruitful directions. For example, some families choose to “suffer in silence.” If the stressful circumstances do not change, however, the pressure becomes unsustainable, and relationships within the home and between the family and the school can become severely strained and even broken.
Some parents begin sharing their concerns with other parents. If they discover that other families are experiencing what appear to be similar challenges, they believe their assumptions about the direct causes of the undue stress (i.e. excessive homework load, insensitive teachers, inattentive administrators, demanding coaches, etc.) have been conclusively confirmed. This can lead to feelings of deep frustration and personal resentment directed toward the school in general and toward school officials in particular. If, out of sheer frustration, the parents schedule meetings with teachers to discuss their concerns, those meetings usually start off on very shaky ground because the discussions begin in a fog of emotion and distrust. This, in turn, becomes the filter through which everything said during the meeting is interpreted.
To be clear, I believe that the stress for our children is real. The emotional and physical risks associated with continuously high stress levels are truly unnerving. And, it makes logical sense that elevated stress levels in students are directly related to school, as cited in the Stress in America survey. It stands to reason, then, that something about school needs to be adjusted in some way in order to alleviate what has become an unacceptable burden for our children, right?
Well, maybe… sort of…, but not really. What am I saying here? I’m saying that I wholeheartedly agree that stress and school go hand in hand. I also firmly believe that it is incumbent upon teachers, coaches, and school administrators to pay very close attention to the students and exercise appropriate and proactive care for their overall well-being. In fact, this is the unique domain of Cherokee Christian Schools, in that we are partners with parents in the comprehensive spiritual, emotional, social and intellectual development of their children.
Furthermore, as Christians, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).” The clear implication of Scripture is that we should be attentive enough to see the burdens of others, and then be compelled by Christ-like love to help bear them. Each school day brings a wide range of interactions, experiences, and obligations for all students, faculty and staff. Within that broad and varied spectrum lies the foundational mandate and unique opportunity of mutual burden-bearing.
At the same time, there are other key biblical principles that have profound and powerful implications for parents and students experiencing burdensome levels of stress. For parents, thinking biblically about stress and instructing their children to do likewise poses one of the greatest challenges and solemn duties they will ever face. I certainly won’t attempt to cover the waterfront on this subject in the conclusion of this article. I will simply direct you to one over-arching biblical principle that I trust will be of some help as you seek to honor the Lord in and through stressful times for you and your children. This principle is obvious to most, yet it is profoundly impactful when thoughtfully considered.
So, here it is.
We live in a Genesis 3 world.
The implications of this principle are monumental. This foundational chapter in the first book of the Bible sets the spiritual, anthropological, and theological context for all that we experience in this life. That includes stress – our own, and that of our children. If we lose sight of this principle and begin interpreting our experiences apart from its context, it is unlikely that we will respond to trying times in fruitful, Christ-exalting ways. To better understand this principle, let’s highlight some of the key points from Genesis 3.
- The mortal enemy of our souls is a master-manipulator, liar, and twister of God’s Word (Gen. 3:1, 4-5).
- When we stray from God’s clear and complete Word, we are easily deceived by half-truths, quickly disenchanted with God’s abundant provision, and foolishly determined in our rationalized disobedience (Gen. 3:2-6).
- When we fear that our sins and failures will be exposed, we tend to run and hide and/or shift blame (Gen. 3:8-13).
- The consequences of ignoring the truth and falling into sin are certain, severe, and sustained (Gen. 3:14-19).
- Even in our darkest moments, God remains our ultimate source of comfort and care (Gen. 3:21).
Now, let’s consider some implications from these key points that apply directly to our handling of stress and how we counsel our children through their stressful seasons.
First, we must recognize that the world we live in is broken, mired in sin and deception. Seeing, understanding, and fully embracing the complete truth is uncommon and unnatural. We can be easily deceived, and we routinely deceive ourselves when our minds are not saturated with the truth of God’s Word. This should serve as a caution for us when we, or our children are faltering under a heavy weight of stress. We should take deliberate and prayerful steps to identify what is truly causing the stress, with the understanding that the Genesis 3 world we live in is always taking its toll on us.
Second, we need to acknowledge that our “run-hide-escape-blame” tendency is alive and well in us and in our children. When it looks like our shortcomings may be exposed, we quickly start heading for the exits. When our failures come to light, we naturally look for someone or something else to blame. Again, we live in a Genesis 3 world. The curse is comprehensive and ongoing. There is sin all around us all the time, so there is always someone or something close by that we can blame. And, to a degree, the blame may even be well-placed. When the actions of others legitimately contribute to our troubles, however, our avoidance of healthy, honest, and biblical self-examination (Matthew 7:1-5; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Peter 1:3-11) only results in severely stunted spiritual growth, and a virtual guarantee that we will repeat the same sinful decisions that contributed to our stress in the first place.
Third, we need to see the stresses and struggles of this life as part of God’s sovereign, redemptive plan. As such, they are purposeful, not random. They are not hazards to be avoided, but rather, they are often unavoidable trials in which we should rejoice (James 1:2-4). In a Genesis 3 world, trials and turmoil are inevitable and perpetual, but so are God’s plans and purposes. When we shift our focus off of our trials and onto the plans and purposes of God, joy breaks through and lightens the burden.
Finally, we simply need to trust God more. We need to instruct and encourage our kids to trust God more. The God we see in Genesis 3 is faithful and true to His word. He is generous in his provision. He is loving in his protective care. He is gracious even in His execution of justice. He is a God we can trust fully no matter what we are facing.
We are often eager to quote and declare with the apostle, Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“What kind of things, Paul?”
Let’s pick up the context of this great verse by starting midway through verse 10 which says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me (Philippians 4:10b-13).”
Paul is not talking primarily about overcoming difficult circumstances, or just gritting his teeth and persevering through a stressful season until it passes. He is really talking about possessing a deep and abiding contentment in, and through ANY kind of circumstance. The “secret” to this contentment is trusting God and relying upon the strength He provides through Christ. It is a Genesis 3 world, but God is faithful and true, always working all things for His glory and our good (Romans 8:26-39).
When the stress of school, and the stress of work, and the stress of home and family life begin to feel unbearable, that is the moment of truth. That is the time when the powerful, stabilizing truth of God’s Word should be our daily meditation (Psalm 1:1-3). It should inform all of our actions and reactions. It should temper our emotions. It should guide our steps like a light on our path (Psalm 119:105). Whether a stressful situation for our kids warrants some form of direct engagement with the school or not, we must fully engage our hearts and minds in the transcendent truth of God’s Word. For, in knowing the truth, we are truly set free to walk through all the experiences of this life in faithfulness and peace (John 8:31-32, 36).