How to Protect Your Kid's Mental Health During Back-to-School
The back-to-school transition can be hard on everyone involved. After a season of vacation and a lazier pace, the jump back into the bustle of the academic year is often a shock to the system. There are new classrooms to visit, new kids and teachers to meet — anxiety or depression can arise, even in young kids. Plus back-to-school often leaves kids and parents alike with an intense desire to... immediately go on vacation (again). And although you likely took your kid for their back-to-school health checkup, what about supporting their mental health?
The good news is that school pressures don't have to be overwhelming; there's plenty you can do to safeguard your child's emotional and psychological well-being this fall. We spoke with clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Guttman and Doctor on Demand psychiatrist Nikole Benders-Hadi for tips on making sure the year gets off to as smooth a start as possible — for kids and parents alike.
Know the causes of school stress
Recognize what is likely to cause kids to feel pressured. Benders-Hadi says that, in addition to the automatic stress of the new, kids can feel the burden of “establishing a sense of belonging and needing to perform well academically.”
Guttman also notes the potential for tension in undertaking multiple transitions at the same time. In other words, both social and academic demands can lead to stress. Beyond this, particularly as kids get older, there might be more complicated anxieties relating to peer pressure, negative portrayal in social media and romantic relationships. Try to get a sense of where those issues might be developing so you can put together a plan for how to handle it.
Watch for warning signs
If you suspect that the school transition is taking its toll on your child, you may need to be on the lookout for some red flags. These include a child who "is expressing a lot of strong emotions or fears related to the start of the school year or if you notice your son or daughter simply not acting like the child you know,” Benders-Hadi explains. Guttman agrees that changes in behavior “such as withdrawal, irritability or increased disorganization” can definitely indicate a problem.
Let them talk it out
If you notice these changes occurring, Benders-Hadi suggests “talking to [your child] about how they are feeling." Let them lead the conversation. "Pay attention to signs that your child might be struggling, and always be available for him or her to come talk to you," Benders-Hadi adds.
That said, don't force kids to talk if they're not into it. Guttman adds that "parents may inadvertently be adding to stress if they pepper their children with too many questions as opposed to just letting them know the parent is always available and interested. Being forced into a conversation can contribute to anxiety.”
Don't let your own stress become contagious
It’s also smart to recognize how stress in parents' lives might contribute to or even increase a child’s tension. While the likely uptick in scheduling demands of back-to-school might have you on edge, it's important to ensure your kid comes home to a safe and reliable environment.
“Parents need to ensure they provide children with support in the form of a predictable schedule, stable expectations and enough time for activities, healthy meals and sleep," Benders-Hadi explains. "Provide an open and safe place for your children to talk about any concerns, and pay particular attention to demonstrating that you aren’t belittling any issues your child brings to you — no matter how small. By listening, showing interest and validating the concerns your children have, parents can better manage their own well-being related to the back-to-school period too.”
If you just have to vent about the situation, Guttman suggests finding another parent with children of a similar age and talking about how it’s going for them. Know, however, that some parents might present a polished-up version of their experience, which could leave you feeling more frustrated.
Additionally, she says it’s smart to avoid specifics. “In my experience,” she says, “the child always finds out and feels embarrassed and betrayed. This results in the child slowly reducing the amount of information he or she shares with the parent, proving to be a huge loss for the relationship,” which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish.
Get help if you need it
If you find that the issues are escalating or are more complex than you feel comfortable addressing (Guttman identifies some "higher-level" concerns, such as when a child loses their appetite, can't sleep, cries uncontrollably, has temper outbursts or exhibits feelings of despair, hopelessness or worthlessness), don’t hesitate to meet with a therapist, counselor or another mental health professional.
Getting back into the school routine is tough, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Most students do eventually settle back in — and so do their parents. If you find that it’s not getting easier, don’t be afraid to call on outside help. And remember that before you know it, it'll be June again — and you might even wind up wondering where the school year went.