Back to School: 9 Ways to Support Children’s Mental Health

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Even before COVID-19, young people in the U.S. were increasingly struggling with mental health (or brain health). Rates of youth depression, anxiety, and suicide have all gone up over the last decade. Data from the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that the past year has exacerbated the problem as kids deal with isolation; economic and family instability; fear of getting sick; and grief over lost loved ones. Data from the CDC show emergency department (ED) visits for mental health and suicide for kids have gone up, and research suggests rates for anxiety and depression have too.

Here is some advice from experts on how parents can support their children's mental (brain) health and help smooth the transition to a successful new academic year.

  1. Give children a safe space to share their feelings. If your child seems troubled, pick a quiet moment and say, "I’m noticing a different vibe lately. I feel like there’s more going on than you’re sharing." Engaging children in creative activities like playing and drawing can help them express any difficult feelings in a low-key, supportive environment.
  2. Listen more, talk less. Remain calm, listen to your children's concerns, speak kindly and reassure them. Let your child lead the conversation. Their fears may not be rational to you, but they are real to them.
  3. Recognize anxiety is completely normal. Point out that everyone has a rough patch now and then. It's understandable, particularly during a pandemic. Referencing athletes and others that have shared their struggles with anxiety may help normalize your child’s feelings.
  4. Don't hide your own stress. Model healthy stress management whenever possible and remind your kids that it’s okay not to be okay all the time. Scroll down for a list of ways that students can relieve stress.
  5. Give kids time to adjust. After so much time at home seeing only immediate family members, or a small, select “tribe,” kids may take a while to warm up to unfamiliar teachers or caregivers. Talk to your children about their teachers and classmates; ask whom they ate lunch with; who are friends with nearby lockers – low-hurdle conversation starters that help them integrate their new school environment.
  6. Encourage kids to be pace themselves. Students eager to be back in the classroom and see all their friends may find the new in-person school day more exhausting than they anticipated. Help them build in breaks and downtime. Limit the use of social media to avoid 24/7 immersion.
  7. Address COVID-19 fears honestly. With pediatric COVID-19 cases on the rise, kids are bound to have questions and concerns about going back to school. Find out what's bothering them and give direct, age-appropriate answers to their questions. If you don't know the answer, reach out to trusted sources such as your pediatrician, school nurse or guidance counselor.
  8. Vaccinate your children if they are 12 or older. Consult your pediatrician or pharmacy if you have any questions about the vaccine. Being vaccinated may give your child peace of mind.
  9. Emphasize self-care. It’s important to think about mental health as part of a continuum of total health. When a person is not feeling well, they go to the doctor. If you think your child might benefit from seeing a therapist, encourage them to give it a try, even just once. You can also start with “baby steps” such as using apps for meditation, taking walks, doodling, or other things that feel good to your child. (See the list of student stress relievers below.)

Top 10 Stress Management Techniques for Students that Will Improve Brain Health

  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Visualize the outcomes you desire
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Take calming breaths
  5. Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
  6. Listen to music
  7. Get organized
  8. Eat a healthy diet
  9. Try self-hypnosis
  10. Use positive thinking & affirmations

Source: Source: Adapted in part from the UNICEF USA Speaker Series, "Coping Through the Pandemic: Supporting Children's Mental Health in Emergencies."  and Verywell Mind

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