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Learn to reduce middle school stress


Diane Gans, a psychotherapist and WL parent, speaks at a parent education event Feb. 26

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Diane Gans, a counseling instructor and psychotherapist, lives and works in West Linn. She recently spoke to parents at Inza R. Wood Middle School.How well does your middle school student handle stress? How much should you be doing to help him or her handle it?

About 20 parents gathered in the library at Wood Middle School to discuss those questions Feb. 26 at a school-sponsored parent chat night. The event featured Diane Gans, who teaches counseling at Lewis & Clark College and also operates a private practice focused on families and teens in West Linn and Portland.

“There is a lot of pressure, a lot of stress that middle-schoolers are experiencing, particularly around academics and social pressures,” Gans said. “I do think we are increasing activities and so there is more to manage. ... Socially, the cyber world has increased the pressure to have more friends, whatever a ‘friend’ looks like.”

Gans wasn’t there to help parents learn to eliminate stress from students’ lives, however. Stress is inevitable during times of change, she said — and that means stress is a daily reality for children during their middle school years. She identified three areas that cause stress for kids: friends, academic performance and family, especially as they work to form their own identities outside the family.

“I think we’re challenged with tolerating failure,” Gans said. “We need to be able to tolerate our children’s discomfort and failure so they know it’s OK to make mistakes. What message are we sending, that we aren’t welcoming their experiences even if they’re not the best? Making a mistake is a huge part of our community as human beings.”

Parents often embrace their role as the “fixer” in their children’s lives. Especially as children grow up, though, too much support may limit them, Gans said. She describes a set of four basic emotions people experience.

“We have sadness, anger, worry and happiness,” she said. “Most people say, ‘Only one of those is good.’ That tells me right away how we don’t let ourselves experience those other emotions that allow us to learn.”

Blocking emotions that are perceived as negative can lead to deeper problems, though. Gans explained to parents that a balance of risk and support is the right mix.

“Too many failures is horrible,” she said. “But a few failures teach resilience.”

Gans suggested that factors influence stress levels: our perception of an event’s importance and our perceived ability to handle it. Those factors determine whether the event is considered positive or negative. Parents’ perceptions may differ widely from their children’s.

Talking about expectations and perceptions isn’t something that has to happen only at home. Wood Principal Barb Soisson said those are appropriate conversations for a school setting too.

“It’s around working as a school, the work we do in school and the work we want to partner with families to do around children learning positively to handle stress and anxiety,” she said. “So much of our work is around this idea of growth mindset, this idea that, ‘Maybe I haven’t learned to do that yet, but that’s all that means,’” she said. “We’re actually learning to talk about stress now. We’re surfacing it. We think it’s unhealthy for our children if we don’t talk about it.”

At the event, parents talked with Gans and with each other about the ways stress is affecting their preteens and young teenagers. That, for Gans, is the goal.

“I always feel it’s beneficial to give parents a chance to talk together,” she said. “Because they’re going to be the support for each other after I leave.”

For more information, you can contact Gans at 503-704-3759 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Keep tabs on stress

Psychotherapist Diane Gans shared these tactics with parents attending Wood’s Parent Chat Night Feb. 26. Keep stress levels under control by keeping tabs on two factors that affect stress: kids’ perception of an event’s importance and their perceived ability to handle the situation.

Help kids discuss their perception of a stressful situation or event’s importance:

What are their thoughts about possible outcomes and the value of the outcome?

Provide a balanced view about the long run.

Value mistakes and the importance of repair.

Help them talk about their perceived capabilities.

Reinforce realistic views of their strengths and challenges.

Encourage a strong sense of self, including a range of emotions.

Pay attention to the expectations you convey to your child.

Source: Diane Gans

By Kate Hoots
Education reporter
503-636-1281, ext. 112
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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