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Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety in School

Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety in School


How the increase in pressure from all angles has been detrimental to our children

From the academic pressure to attend a prestigious university to the day-to-day stress of social media to the ever-present anxiety of gun violence, children are facing an increasingly complex web of trauma and tension. There are numerous stress factors that simply did not exist a generation or two ago. Understanding the role stress plays, where it comes from, and how to help alleviate it are keys to moving our collective mental health forward.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, a mental health crisis was looming among children. “School personnel, parents, teachers, and mental health practitioners were noticing a very high increase in anxiety in kids … to the point where it was becoming almost a pandemic. It’s becoming so prolific,” said Jennifer Nelson, a trauma-focused community health worker at Mental Health Partners. Nelson is a former teacher who changed careers to better address the mental health of children and families.

Jennifer Nelson

Trauma is difficult to dissect. Are you born with it, instilled with it, or is it learned behavior over time? “Anxiety is contagious. We biologically are set up as children … to take cues about safety in our environment from the adults. If a parent is anxious or scared, a child will be anxious and scared because the parent is either verbally or non-verbally communicating [that behavior],” Nelson expanded.

The fact that we are seeing an increase in anxiety in children may have more to do with adults than the young people we are raising. Children model their behavior after the adult figures in their lives. It is nearly impossible to raise a stress- or anxiety-free child if the parents model stressful and anxious behavior. “Calm parents generally will not have an anxious child,” Nelson spoke on the role parents can play. Anxiety present in children oftentimes first comes from their parents or caretakers.

No break from the headlines

Media access plays a significant role in the increase in anxiety among our youth. The rise in cell phones and social media have transformed the way we operate on a daily basis. Just a few decades ago news was consumed almost entirely during a set time of day, such as reading the morning paper or watching the nightly news hour. Today we are accustomed to a constant stream of information, much of it negative, throughout our day. There is no break from the headlines for many of us.

Nelson touched on the difference in generations growing up before cell phones and social media were so common. Nelson noted that children “have access to media 24/7, and that wasn’t the case before. Kids would come home, and they would watch cartoons or read a book or play, and they didn’t really have an awareness of those adult kinds of things that were going on. And now they know all of that. I have an 8-year-old nephew who will ask questions about Ukraine.”

It is not just children who should put down the screen and stop “doom-scrolling,” it’s the adults as well. Mental health experts indicate that watching the news may be more anxiety-inducing than reading the news. When reading stories, the reader has more control over what content is consumed. Images of destruction and shocking headlines often define today’s TV media coverage, presenting a warped world view and leaving the viewer feeling powerless, all leading to stress and anxiety.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

America’s national shame: gun violence

I recall growing up in the Columbine era where I was acutely aware that a school shooting had happened, but it was seen as a horrifying and one-time event. It dominated headlines for months. Today the reality is that school shootings are so common, it is not possible to report on all of them on the national news.

Even if the chances of a gun-related incident occurring at any given school is small, the stress from constantly hearing reports about it has reverberating effects. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, practicing active shooter drills is bad for mental health.

Steve Nelson

Instead, Steve Nelson, former head of the Calhoun School in New York and current Yellow Scene columnist, suggests schools practice these drills without letting students know the full details of their intent. “I never thought about having any kind of drill that would really frighten children about something that was highly unlikely to ever actually occur. We would practice evacuation drills, but we just call that a fire drill,” Steve Nelson explained. Steve is Jennifer Nelson’s father.

This type of preparedness helps everyone be ready in case something does occur but doesn’t traumatize children with thoughts of active shooters entering their classroom, even if the adults are practicing for a rapid evacuation, active shooter, or other more intense event.

Having armed guards in schools leads to a whole new host of problems and has not necessarily been shown to deter school shootings. Oftentimes law enforcement officers in a school setting end up targeting minority students a disproportionate amount and therefore enforcing generational trauma and upholding systemic racism, according to the ACLU of California and numerous other sources.

Academic pressure

The pressure of standardized tests, AP classes, and college admissions coupled with the increase in mental health crises surrounding school shootings and the compounded environmental doom we are certainly facing can be overwhelming to any kid in today’s society.

MIT Press Direct explored the effects of standardized testing on students and found anxiety and stress significantly impact students’ test scores. A study from a school in New Orleans also showed that stress from outside factors, such as socioeconomic status, also negatively affects test scores, reinforcing the institutional benefits that wealthier students already experience.

Steve Nelson shared his observations on the increase in stress over the decades: “There has been a really crazy ratcheting up of stress related to school that doesn’t have anything to do with guns or anything to do with Covid, just the advent of standardized testing and the completely inappropriate emphasis on performance on certain kinds of standardized measures and expectations about higher education.”

Fortunately many colleges and universities are doing away with standardized testing as a measure for admissions, but the pressure to perform well academically is still immense. Adjusting standardized testing requirements is one step, but the problem of institutionalized stress and trauma from dealing with financial instability is the root of the problem. Lorena Garcia, Colorado state representative and executive director on the board of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition previously told YS, “In order to tear down structural racism, you have to tear down structures. How about fixing our society so [parents] are not having to work two to three jobs a day?”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Reducing screen time

Social media and cell phones are not going anywhere. The connectivity and instant communication they allow have revolutionized the way knowledge is stored and business is conducted. It is the latest version of globalization which has steadily stitched together the fractures of Pangea since the beginning of the Columbian exchange in the 1500s.

Fighting against technological change is a fruitless endeavor, but we can adapt to this reality in a way that induces less stress.

One solution is to turn off the TV and limit screen time, especially for children. Shifting to a reading focus can help reduce anxiety and allow readers of all ages to focus on content they wish to hear about, with in-depth coverage, rather than having a stressful and potentially trauma-inducing headline beamed into the living room or palm of their hand.

Scheduling screen time and limiting it to an age-appropriate amount while communicating that to your child is another way to help reduce anxiety. “Putting together schedules for kids is incredibly important,” Jennifer Nelson said. She expanded that parents should set expectations for their children by letting them know ahead of time how much screen time they will be allowed. “We call that ‘front loading’ in education, when you’re telling them ahead of time, ‘This is what it’s gonna look like,’” she said.

Adults play a significant role. “I think that adults are bamboozled by their own consumption of the media,” Steve Nelson said. “I don’t blame anyone. I love my grandkids, I worry about them, but there’s a real loss of objectivity,” he explained. Turning off the news, or at least understanding the overstated dangers headlines inspire, is a start.

Jennifer Nelson shared similar sentiments: “We don’t want to be in a place where we’re ignorant of things that are going on in the world. There is a gift that we have in technology in being able to know about things that are going on and be able to support causes that we care about … But I think that keeping things in perspective is very hard for a lot of people.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Building resiliency

It is also important that parents nurture their children to be resilient in the face of adversity. Allowing kids the opportunity to experiment, room to fail, and even the time to be bored are all important factors that will help them develop into well-rounded adults who are more capable of dealing with stress and anxiety.

“A lot of people think that you’re born resilient or not. The reality is that resilience is something that develops by having small challenges to overcome over and over again. It doesn’t mean that you have to be exposed to something traumatic. It does mean that you need to suffer through some things that are challenging,” Jennifer Nelson stated. “Then you have the evidence that teaches you, ‘I can do hard things. I can do something that’s challenging,’” she said.

One example is letting young kids tie their own shoes. “It might be frustrating, and they might cry. It may be uncomfortable. They might complain about it, but the satisfaction of actually completing that will bring them to the next challenge with competence. So something developmentally appropriate, where we’re giving kids challenges that they can overcome actually, is what helps them build resilience,” Nelson explained.

Another suggestion is focus on providing more resources for mental health as students enter college. Most mental health problems begin at this age. The freedom away from family allows many to thrive, but for some it creates a lonely or dark space that allows trauma and stress to flourish. Luckily, the conversation seems to be shifting, but more mental health help and destigmatization, especially for young men, is necessary to help heal and move forward as a nation.

Resources for children and parents

A Precious Child
A Precious Child recognizes that meeting the essential needs of children is the basic building block to development. They also realize support does not end there, with a variety of options including social & emotional wellbeing and career and job development classes and training.

Conscious Discipline
Provides free resources, worksheets, podcasts, videos and more that can help families learn about social & emotional wellbeing. Things like “I Love You” rituals help build bonds and allow children to express complex feelings. They also offer paid options if you find this is the right content for your family.

CU Boulder Center for Resilience + Wellbeing
Helps build confidence, emotional skills, and routines that are crucial for managing things like social media, screen time, and the intake of news. Paired with clinical research that CU Boulder has to offer, this center provides a great way to begin developing resiliency that children need.

The Gottman Institute
Allows access to numerous articles and resources for parents, couples, and children to learn to manage conflict, grow emotionally, and develop healthy relationships. Based on decades of research by Dr. Gottman and others, this science-driven approach is aimed at helping both families and mental health professionals alike.

MESA – Moving to End Sexual Assault
MESA’s aim is to end sexual assault and support survivors through education, a hotline, and even a calming in-house therapy dog. Their resources include how to talk about these events to loved ones, reporting options, and even a dating guide for when the time is right. You can call (303) 443-7300 or text BRAVE to 20121 to begin the healing process.

St. Vrain and Boulder Valley Safe Schools Coalition
Founded by former students to help support current and future students by connecting with teachers, parents, and counselors. They help navigate the tough mental, educational, and identity stresses that affect so many. The St. Vrain Coalition meets on the 4th Tuesday each month at Longmont Community Foundation office, 636 Coffman St, Suite #203.

Boulder Valley Health Teen Clinic
Aiming to keep costs as low as possible, this clinic specializes in issues that teens face across the state. They offer sexual as well as behavioral health tips and and support as well as providing resources for educators wanting to learn more about supporting their students.

For more resources, see our 2023 School Directory.


Austin Clinkenbeard
Austin Clinkenbeard has been traveling the world with his wife for the past several years exploring food, history and culture along the way. He is a passionate advocate for stronger social science education and informed global travel. Austin holds degrees in Anthropology and Political Science from San Diego State. When he’s home there’s a good chance you can catch him cooking allergy friendly food. You can follow along Austin’s travel adventures and food allergy journey at www.NowWeExplore.com.

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