From the September 2019 issue

How to Prioritize Mental Health During Back-to-School Season

In the whirlwind of changing schedules and big emotions, parents can be a steadying source of support.

Brought to you by Flinn Foundation

The struggle to get kids up in the morning after a summer of sleeping in is only the beginning of the back-to-school challenges many families face.

The start of a new school year – and the changing schedules, routines and emotions that come with it – is a big transition that can bring on feelings of anxiety for some kids and even parents, too.

“It’s such an important change that we’re all mindful of – the fact that this is a developmental transition for the whole family,” says Dr. Lori Warner, Ph.D., director of the Ted Lindsay Foundation Hope Center at Beaumont Children’s in Southfield. Even if you’re already familiar with the school, teachers or classes, “it’s still the first time we as a family have walked this particular path.”

And when someone in the family has existing mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety or school refusal, “that adds an extra layer of stress and fear sometimes for the kids in the family.”

Being prepared during those first few weeks is essential. What might seem like common sense could be the difference between chaos and calm when it really counts. Take care of yourself physically and mentally, sync up your calendars with important dates and make sure everyone’s on the “same page” about expectations, Warner recommends.

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“Intentionally planning and getting as organized as possible definitely helps everyone’s mental health,” she says. “The chaos and the unknown never help.”

While the first couple of weeks can be tough, it’s pretty standard for many moms and dads who have seen the school-year blues come and go after a brief adjustment period every September. But parents have to be careful, experts say. A continuing refusal to get out of bed, changes in appetite or withdrawal from family or friends, for example, are red flags.

“One of the things to really watch for is the degree that it’s impacting their daily functioning. Everybody has days that they feel up and down, but if we’re seeing notable and sustained changes,” it’s time to seek help, Warner says. “The worst thing that a professional is going to tell you is that these are normal developmental changes.”

In addition to being on the lookout for those changes, it’s also critical to keep in close communication with your kids about how they’re feeling.

“Check back regularly about how things are going. We tend to get started and get going, and then we’re kind of onto the next thing we’re preparing for,” she says. “We still need to go back and say, ‘OK, how is it going now? How are the classes, how are the people?’ That’s really important.”

Listening is key – and sometimes that means setting aside a dedicated time to talk through some of kids’ concerns to avoid “half-listening” when you’re busy. But also know that solving or explaining away your child’s problems isn’t the answer.

“We want to fix whatever problem our child brings to us. It can be very tempting to tell a child, ‘It’s not a big deal, don’t worry about that, that’s not going to happen,'” Warner explains. “We definitely want the kids to understand we are there for them and help them learn to solve problems for themselves.”

Building resiliency is beneficial for kids of all ages.

“We create a mindset that we will work on this together. There isn’t something that we can’t figure out together. We might not be able to fix it, but we can build coping strategies so we can handle that issue,” she says. “We’re not bulldozing problems out of the way, we’re not helicoptering in and fixing them for our children; what we want to do is support them. They’re doing the pedaling and the steering, and then we let go.”

If you do start to notice or hear about behaviors you haven’t seen before, know that your local public school district is required to provide students with the supports they need to succeed.

“We always recommend that families start with the school. The school has available and free support,” she says. “Families can start the ball rolling by making the request (in writing).”

An outside clinical diagnosis can also be helpful, and your child’s primary care provider should be able to offer a referral to a center or developmental pediatrician who can conduct an evaluation.

For parents of children who say they “hate” school every year, it’s important to work on whatever root problems may be causing those feelings. Any remaining feelings should still be respected – don’t tell them to “suck it up,” for example – but it can be a chance to work on perspective-taking.

“There are always going to be times in life we have to do things we don’t want to do. Let’s work on finding the positives, having gratitude for the things that are going well – a class they like or a friend in a class – and really encourage them to look at it like ‘it is a fresh year,'” she says.

Focusing too much on the negatives is a common problem for kids, Warner points out. “Especially for kids, everything’s bad if one thing is kind of bad,” she says. Instead, let your children see you as a positive role model for perspective-taking, gratitude and problem-solving.

“We don’t want you to have difficulty, but even with our best efforts, there are going to be things we don’t like or that we can’t control,” she says, and kids need to learn problem-solving and how to find support. “We have to learn to be stronger than our difficulty so we can get onto the next things that we enjoy.”

Brought to you by the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. Find more information at flinnfoundation.org.

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