The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 9, 2009


Psychologist shares tips for handling high school stress

“This has been a rough start to a new year,” observed Kathryn Yamartino, EdM, PsyD, in her talk entitled “Stress and Stressful Times – Supportive Tips for Parents” at the Concord-Carlisle High School. The audience of close to 30 high school parents, about half of whom had students new to the school this year, responded with a spontaneous burst of nervous laughter.

Yamartino, speaking at the invitation of the Concord-Carlisle Center for Parents and Teachers, clarified that she would not speak specifically about the recent traumatic events that have increased community stress – the suicide of a senior on the first day of school and the arrest of another senior for alleged serious threats requiring a controlled entry of the school on September 25. However, speaking one week later, on October 1, Yamartino said she was there to suggest ways that parents can help their families reduce stress resulting from those and other events.

Assistant Principal Jessica Truslow, who is responsible for the junior and senior classes, introduced the speaker, a psychologist in Acton. After the presentation, Truslow, at the high school for nine years, said she believes that the increasing pressure to apply for early admission into college has raised the level of stress for some seniors in recent years. Speaking of students graduating in 2010, she said, “This is a very conscientious class.” She explained that over the last few years, the number of students applying to college early has increased, and the deadlines – and accompanying pressures – have moved up. She added, “Other students can be stressed out that they are not applying for early decision.” Nonetheless, she believes that parents of the older students view recent events as “a real anomaly” and that’s why so many more parents of new students at the school attended the talk.

Yamartino emphasized the need for family members to support each other in times of stress. Common symptoms of stress include forgetfulness and difficulty in concentrating. She encouraged parents to stick to routines as much as possible.

“Be a good role model,” she encouraged parents. She said that people exhibit the best coping skills when they get rest, eat well and participate in open discussions. Her suggestions to reduce stress include: writing lists, meditating, exercising and reaching out to others.

Facebook exacerbates problems

Encouraged by Yamartino to ask questions, many parents noted that reaching out to other students over Facebook had actually increased stress in their homes. Parents revealed that many children first showed reluctance about attending school on September 25 after their online interactions. Of the 1,246 students at the school, 464 reported absent on that day, according to Sharon Trainor, CCHS administrative secretary.

Yamartino acknowledged that new forms of communication can actually raise rather than reduce stress. She emphasized the importance of “taking breaks from the intensity of the situation” and intervening when kids are getting “whipped up on Facebook.”

“Teenagers want to spend time with friends,” explained the psychologist. She encouraged parents to host kids for a discussion in person at their homes. She suggested that parents can then monitor the discussion and interrupt it, as needed, with distractions like a snack break or a movie. During this process, she said, the group will frequently come up with a “call to service” and turn their energetic anxiety into a productive and appropriate way to help others.

Oftentimes, a crisis will cause guilt and people will wonder what they could have done differently. “We cannot help everyone,” said Yamartino. “We are not built to respond to everyone and everything.”

Getting kids to talk

At home, while discussions at breakfast or at the dinner table can reduce family stress, Yamartino reminded parents that they must be willing to listen if they want their children to talk. She used a sports analogy of “the ready stance.” She said you must “be open to what you’re going to hear.” Alternatively, many parents enter into those conversations with preconceived opinions and they attempt to shape answers. “Too often, as parents, we begin our conversations like we’re a detective on CSI,” she said.

The psychologist provided the following pointers to parents for constructive discussions:

• Put your own anxiety aside;

• Show genuine interest in what children say;

• Validate the truth in their comments;

• Correct inaccuracies of fact, but not of opinion;

• Brainstorm on the next steps.

“Kids feel they cannot fail in any area,” said Yamartino about the high expectations for children in our community. “They have to be celebrities.” She encouraged parents to put their own expectations aside, and be reasonable.

Parents cannot hope to do everything, however, and Yamartino emphasized the importance of encouraging student dialogue with school professionals to prevent problems from developing. She noted that students are more open to interventions prompted by their peers (although she did add that their parents can be resentful). If and when a crisis should develop, it helps parents to be ready. Yamartino encouraged parents to:

• Establish a family emergency plan and agree on a common meeting place;

• Put together a list of support people in advance (clergy, mental health professionals, etc.);

• Pay attention to a child’s changes in mood, sleep, appetite and work habits, and if the behavior is longer than two weeks, seek evaluation.

Presentation on adolescents

Yamartino will next share her expertise with parents through the auspices of the Center for Parents and Teachers with a presentation entitled, “How to Enjoy Living with a Pre-Adoslescent” on Thursday, October 15 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Carlisle Town Hall. The fee is $5 in advance and $8 at the door. To pre-register, email ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito