“I’m scared I’m going to fail; I have to get this right.”
“How am I going to finish all this? I don’t have time to do it all.”
“Let’s just leave it, I’ll get it done later.”
Have your kids ever felt this way when dealing with stress from completing homework, multiple projects, or studying for tests? Maybe they haven’t even verbalized the anxiety, but you can sense it from their behaviour or sudden onset of symptoms such as a stomachache, nervousness, or perhaps being more withdrawn from you.
Academic stress is common, however, the increasing number of students having consistent stress, anxiety, and even depression is startling. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), in 2018 the number one cause of stress among middle school students was getting good grades (61%) in contrast to social pressure to look good or fit in.1 Moreover, in 2019, 7 out of 10 teens ages 13-17 consider anxiety and depression to be a major issue among their peers, according to the Wallace Foundation, a philanthropic organization that works to foster equity and improve learning among the youth. Lastly, ACHA has found that “stress has become the most serious academic impediment among students at over a hundred colleges and universities across the U.S.”
What can parents do to help their children cope with academic stress? They may be in elementary, high school, or even university, but all of them feel the pressure in some capacity. Having the right coping strategies in place should help them cope with other stressful situations in the future inshaAllah, God willing.
Coping with Stress
The term “stress” usually has a negative connotation in our modern society. However, a certain amount of stress is good for us. Called “eustress,” it is a positive form of stress that has a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being.2 Exercising, for example, puts your body under a certain amount of stress, resulting in the beneficial release of endorphins – a hormone that helps relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve your sense of well-being.3 Challenging yourself with completing a puzzle, knitting a cap, memorizing a surah, or even shooting hoops in practice can feel reinvigorating. Overall, some stress is good for us physically and mentally. However, when it goes over the limit your body can handle, then it becomes detrimental to our health.
A lot of the time it is how we perceive the task at hand that can cause negative stress. For example, the thought of completing a calculus problem or going on a roller coaster may be distressing for some and exciting for others. How we perceive the “stressor” or stimuli affects our reaction. Therefore, if we learn to manage our perceptions of certain activities and people (yes, people can be stressors, too) in our lives, we can ultimately be successful in managing our stress, anxiety, and even depression. Having certain coping strategies in practice should help our children deal with stress derived from academic activities, inshaAllah.
Healthy Studying Tips
If your child struggles with completing homework or studying for an exam, then some strategies can help them succeed. A great resource by DK Books called Help Your Kids with Study Skills, outlines how parents and educators can help students achieve success in a more balanced manner. Much of the information in this section has been gleaned from this resource.
If you want your child to be well-rested and nourished before and during the process of studying for their exam. Here is how you can help them accomplish that.
1. Eat well.
Meals that consist of fresh vegetables and fruits, complex carbohydrates, and proteins make for a balanced diet that provides all the necessary nutrients and vitamins for your brain to function optimally. If your child relies on junk food, sugary juices, or coffee to get by, it will only give your brain short energy boosts that result in steep glucose crashes that will make your body want more of that food to keep going. A balanced diet does not rapidly raise your glucose levels, rather they are sustained for a long time, helping you concentrate for a longer time.
2. Sleep well.
Getting enough hours of quality sleep according to your child’s age requirements will help the body restore its energy. Even taking power naps during the day can help boost their brain’s performance. To ensure good quality sleep, have some downtime before getting into bed by reading a book or having a warm bath. Moreover, avoid any screen time an hour before bed including TV shows or video games as the effects of blue light causes one’s body to believe it is daytime and releases cortisol and other adrenals to stay awake. Lastly, if you are studying, then stop an hour before sleeping as your brain needs a break. During that break, your brain will consolidate the information it just took in, cementing it into your long-term memory.
3. Get in some exercise.
Just as mentioned above, exercise is a great way to reduce stress. For example, simply walking outside for 30 minutes brings our breathing and heart rates into a stable rhythm and releases endorphins. Take walks during your study breaks, engage in stretching or pilates, or kick a ball or shoot some hoops. You will come back refreshed and ready for the next study session.
4. Study in comfort.
Once you have planned what your child will eat and when they will sleep and exercise, it is important to organize their study space in a way that induces comfort and concentration. Remember, these tips are not only meant for long-haul studying but even for completing daily homework – it is essentially a lifestyle. Prioritizing comfort in their study space includes sitting in an ergonomic chair, maintaining a comfortable temperature, avoiding clutter, and minimizing noise – depending on what helps your child concentrate.
A note about ambient noise: it is similar to noises you hear in a busy coffee shop - noises are constantly shifting, the decibels are at the pace of normal conversation, and there is some visual stimulation. Without any loud noises present, your child can work in the kitchen or living room, for example, to grab the concentration benefits of ambient noise in your home.4
5. Create study blocks.
Organizing study sessions or completing homework in chunks of time helps avoid brain fatigue and boosts focus. There are many techniques available that one can try. A popular method is the Pomodoro technique, where one concentrates on the task at hand for 25 minutes and then takes a 5-10 minute break before coming back to the next 25 minutes. Depending on your child’s concentration habits, you can choose how many minutes works best for them. Lastly, divide up their work by chapters, sections, or pages so that they can see how much progress they are making in completing studying or completing a homework assignment. Completing these sections acts like small wins for them, boosting their motivation to reach their end goal.
Overall, these are salient actions one can take to ensure that your child’s anxiety levels stay to a minimum and see that stress can be managed.
Relaxation and Other Calming Techniques
When one starts to feel they are spiraling into anxiety, there are many ways to stop it in its tracks:
- Relax through breathing: increasing your oxygen intake stabilizes your brain. Here are some breathing techniques one can employ:
- Take in deeper and slower breaths by breathing into your stomach. First, put your hands on your chest and stomach, and inhale into the abdomen slowly. Count to 6 while breathing in, hold the breath for a few moments, then exhale counting to 6 again. Keep doing this until you feel markedly relaxed.
- 7/11 breathing technique: This technique can help prevent panic attacks during highly stressful moments. First, breathe in while counting 1 to 7 and notice your belly expand. Then breathe out while counting 1 to 11, noticing your belly pulling back in again. Repeat this process until you notice yourself relaxing completely.
- Take a hot or cold shower: a hot shower relaxes your body, while a cold shower re-energizes your body.
- Pray your obligatory salah and nafl salah, optional or extra prayer for more rewards
- Sit in a quiet place and talk to Allah, supplicating to Him about your complaints, asking Him for help in your studies or whatever is bothering you, and showing Him gratitude for what He has already blessed you with.
- Recite or listen to the Quran.
- Call or talk to a friend or loved one.
- Cuddle with a loved one.
- Read your favourite book or watch a non-distressing TV show that you like.
- Go outdoors.
- Write in a journal - spill your current thoughts to declutter your mind, write about what you are grateful for, and what your next steps are in tackling a problem. You should feel some catharsis after this.
- Play a board game or non-distressing video game.
- Make something with your hands (blocks, playdough, draw or paint, cook or bake depending on your child’s age).
- Do a grounding exercise5 that helps bring you out of your anxious thoughts and grounds you in the present moment:
- Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, then close your eyes if you feel comfortable.
- Take several slow, deep breaths through your nose or mouth.
- Then use your five senses to notice the following:
- 5 things you can see around you
- 4 things you can touch around you
- 3 things you can hear around you
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
Know When to Seek Help
If your child has been experiencing consistently high anxiety for over two weeks, then it is time to seek professional help. Guidance counselors in schools or child therapists can listen and help create a treatment plan (non-medicated) that can help them ride out this difficult time. A lot of the time, stabilizing debilitating thoughts is the first step people need to take, as it usually markedly reduces anxiety right away. Learning to control our negative thoughts and perceptions are key abilities that will help in other difficult patches that may come into their lives later on.
As parents, employing and modeling these preventative measures (eating, sleeping, and exercising well) and coping strategies (learning how to divert our attention from anxiety and calming down) will be beneficial for our children to absorb and practice as well, in sha Allah, God-willing.
Sumayya Khan is a homeschooling mother of two and a teacher. She has worked with several Islamic schools and organizations in the last 10 years. She is currently studying the Qur’an through Al-Huda Institute. In her free time, she loves to spend time with her family and friends, play sports, enjoy nature, and read books. She currently resides with her family in Toronto, Canada.