Embrace the Pause: How We Parents Can Reduce Stress in Our Students’ Lives, by Dr. Nicole Wesley

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Homework, projects, exams, college applications, after school activities, sports, games, and so on. There’s so much going on that causes stress and anxiety…and I’m talking about us parents! Yes, you, me, us. As I start my 21st year as an educator, eight of which were as a principal, I’ve come to realize just how impactful parents are at reducing, or, increasing the stress level in their child…and many times we don’t even know it.  Think about it. What parent wakes up in the morning and says, “Humm….how many ways can I stress out my kid today?” Of course they stress us out, but come on, we love them too much to engage in tit for tat.  Rather, it’s the subtle actions, comments, or lack thereof that send messages to our kids, which result in an increased level of stress. Now, let me pause here and say explicitly that I’m not suggesting we walk on egg shells around our kids and create a stress-free barrier around them. Absolutely not! It is healthy for them to experience failure, defeat, stress, and anxiety, and then develop coping skills to learn, reflect, and grow from the experience.  The problem lies when we do one of two things, 1) jump in, save the day, and solve our kids’ problems, or 2) place expectations and goals upon our kids without engaging in thought-provoking and reflective conversations that allow our kids to articulate their experiences and thoughts free from judgment.  Boy, neither are easy! 

So, what’s the solution? How do we reduce stress in our kids’ lives, or avoid contributing to it. I’ve seen parent-student relationships thrive or dive because of how a parent reacts and interacts with his/her kid(s). The answer is going to seem pretty simple, but yet, for some of us parents, it’s hard to break our habits or question our own parenting skills, and let’s just say it, avoid making our parents’ mistakes, but actually turning out to be like our parents (without admitting it, of course). In short, we have to embrace the pause

As a principal, I’ve observed parent-student relationships at countless sporting events, at pick up and drop off, in disciplinary meetings, goal-setting meetings, during extracurricular activities, during parent conferences, and so on.   What I’ve noticed is that there are two types of parents. Yes, I am generalizing and I do not mean to be offensive, as I am a parent who will admit openly that I make parenting mistakes all of the time. It’s not like the stork dropped off a “How To” guide along with the baby. But, for simplicity sake, I do recall at some point recognizing that relations are strengthened or weakened among parents and students depending on how a parent engages with their kid(s). 

Parent #1 - Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it… That's just it... WAIT…embrace the pause! Think about the times when you are so upset, emotional, frustrated, scared and ready to unleash on your kid for his or her poor choice, procrastination, or flat out absurdity. Your initial response innately was to lay into your kid, lecture, and overpower him or her with all the reasons why you are disappointed. There’s beauty in the pause. There’s power in waiting for your kid to tell you all of the reasons why his or her choices were poor.  Parents who simply state, “Think about your actions and we’ll talk later when everyone is calm and rational,” will often find that their child will be more apt to open up and express genuine feelings.  What I’ve observed over and over again is the parent who lashes out without pause and reflection, and the student who responds by bottling up thoughts, feelings, and the need to ask for help. Why are you telling the counselor your student’s goals? Why are you speaking for your student when the teacher asks him or her a direct question about level of effort? Why are you talking when the power is in listening? Give your child a voice. Pause. Listen. 

Parent #2 - I remember a student sitting in my office for a minor infraction. His mom sat across the table. I asked him a number of open-ended questions, as a means to find out his mindset. Unrelated to why he was there, he began to share about a party he went to the previous weekend, where he was exposed to drugs.  He began to share how he felt anxiety about declining the offer, seeing some of his friends sample with curiosity, and as they asked him if he wanted some, he said, “….”  Yep, his mom, out of fear, went off, “Why didn’t you call me, I don’t want you hanging out with those friends, I thought there was going to be parent supervision…”  I politely asked if she would step out, as I saw her son retreat, shut down, and withdraw. She reluctantly complied. He then said, “Dr. Wesley, I said no. I told them I was driving and I promised my parents I would get home safely.”  What a powerful moment between the two of us….but this moment needed to be with his mother.  

Students who feel listened to by their parents and adults, feel less fearful of being open and honest. It’s never too early to start encouraging open and honest dialogue, through open-ended questioning, where you do not answer your own questions AND you embrace the pause. 

Nikki Wesley, Ed.D., Director of Student Services, Redondo Beach Unified School District

Watch the full Families Connected Speaker Series event at Redondo Union High School on "Recognizing and Responding to Teen Stressors and Pressures," Moderated by Dr. Nicole Wesley.