Back to School: Our Kids and their Mental Health
As we have started our transition from our (semi) relaxed summer schedules to make our way back into the fall routine, many of us begin to feel the angst of having to carry all of the responsibilities, obligations, and commitments that come along with it. Returning to school in the fall can be overwhelming for both the child and their parents in many ways. One concern many parents have is wondering how they can help provide support for their child’s mental health during this time of year. With the past two years being saturated with grief, uncertainty about the future, isolation, anxiety, depression, stress, and limited socialization, a child’s mental health needs to be at the forefront of our minds as they make their return to school.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, the CDC has reported data that shows the proportion of mental health emergency visits for kids increased dramatically in the fall of 2020, prompting an emergency in child and adolescent mental health declaration by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. By the end of 2021, a year after the original data was released by the CDC, rates of mental health emergency visits amongst kids rose by nearly 40%. By the spring of 2022, the numbers continued to climb. This called for action to take place in communities across the nation to increase funding for mental health resources, help people get connected to mental health programs, develop strategies to increase the number of mental healthcare providers, and ensure that insurance companies cover mental health care. This determined effort will provide much-needed support for parents seeking resources for their kids, but as we work to improve the mental healthcare system, there are a number of things parents can do to help our children through mental health battles.
What Parents Can Do:
Understand that mental health is just as important as physical health
Many times, if our child appears to be sluggish, feels feverish, has a persistent cough or aches and pains, we pay attention and seek medical help. Many times, if our child appears to be persistently sad, irritable, expressing anger outbursts, sleeping too much or too little, eating more or less so than usual, or even seems less interested in activities they used to enjoy, we brush it off as “a phase” or something else that can be ignored. This is crucial. Poor mental health can have a negative impact on learning, socialization, self-esteem, and other important aspects of human development that can potentially have lifelong consequences. At its most severe, it can lead to suicide. If your child is showing signs of anxiety or depression, call your doctor. If your child talks about harming themselves or others, get help immediately such as by calling 911 or taking them to your local emergency room. It’s better to overreact than underreact when it comes to our children’s mental health.
Create safe spaces to talk
Losing connection with our kids can be a catalyst to poor mental health in children and teens. Carving out time during our regular routine, even just 10 minutes, to check in and ask open-ended questions will show our children we are interested in listening to what’s important to them. If your child presents more of a challenge for you by giving you general “I’m fine” or “It’s good” answers, try asking specific questions such as “What’s one thing that made you laugh today?” “What’s something you saw someone else do today that made you feel happy?” or “What’s something that you noticed made you feel angry or annoyed lately?” REMEMBER: If you’re providing a safe space for your child to talk to you, make sure you set an intention to listen without interrupting and put away your own distractions to maintain focus on them.
Try to make your home a judgment-free safe space
Although it’s important and necessary to have expectations about certain things like grades and behavior, expectations can still be applied without judgment. If your child doesn’t meet expectations try to listen to them about what happened. Do your best to allow them to talk more than you do; be empathetic and forgiving. In order to do this, you will need to practice being empathetic and forgiving towards yourself as well. *See the last bullet point*
Provide downtime for your child
Everyone needs space in their calendar to do nothing, especially children and teens. Be sure they aren’t overscheduled so they have space in their week to do things things they enjoy.
Encourage healthy media habits
Electronic devices for gaming and social media is a very firm part of youth culture and is something that is here to stay. In moderation, games and social media can provide healthy mental stimulation, and improve cognitive functioning, social skills, creativity, problem-solving strategies, and other executive functioning abilities. However, if it exceeds moderation, or if our children are engaging in unsafe platforms, it can contribute to mental health problems. Talk to your child about how they use their devices and social media; set clear boundaries, limitations, and expectations. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/ has tons of information for parents on this topic.
Stick to the routine as much as possible
Children, and even teens, feel safer and more secure when there is a predictable routine. Make sure you set a regular time for healthy meals, naps, and night sleep at home. If there is an expected change in routine, try to let your child know as early as possible.
Stay aware of your own emotional expression
Children mirror their parents in almost all of their behaviors. If we are outwardly stressed, irritated, impatient, or anxious during transitions or changes in routine, so will our children. If possible, let your child know that what you’re feeling is not due to them but rather the situation. We all try to do our best.
Talk with your children about what to expect during a new school year
Helping them gain a better vision of what to expect when routines change, or if they’re attending a new school, and reassuring them that their emotions about going through transition are normal and valid, will help them feel supported.
Keep in touch with teachers, coaches, and other parents
Creating open lines of communication with other adults who play a big role in your child’s life may offer insight to your child’s mental health status. It can also provide more support for you and your child.
- Take care of yourself – Parents can sometimes have a tendency to forget about our own needs and mental health when we are so focused on the mental health and well-being of our kids. Remember that you are an amazing parent and you deserve to give yourself the same love and support you give to your kids. If you are currently experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress, anxiety, or depression of your own, don’t hesitate to reach out for help and talk to a therapist.