How to Support Kids’ Mental Health As They Head Back to School

Jul 19, 2023 | Children's Health

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Getting back in the classroom can be a vulnerable time for some students’ mental health.

Michelle Flechas, MD, Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health pediatrician, offers her advice for parents to help their children navigate this season.

Open Communication and Family Dinners

Maintaining open lines of communication is essential. Dr. Flechas suggests having family dinners several times a week as an opportunity for parents and children to talk about both the good and the bad aspects of their days. These regular check-ins can help children feel comfortable sharing their experiences, which strengthens family bonds.

Dinner doesn’t work? Breakfast conversations, drive-time chats without devices or overpowering music, or any other times you can regularly be together can serve the same purpose. Dr. Flechas recommends aiming for at least four dinners or check-ins per week for the best family outcomes.

Be Present 

Being physically present is not enough; parents need to regularly actively engage with their children in all ages and stages. Setting aside electronic devices and spending quality time playing board games, staying active together outdoors or simply having meaningful conversations strengthens the parent-child bond and promotes positive mental health.

Well-Child Visits to Address Concerns

Scheduling regular well-child visits with a pediatrician is crucial for kids’ physical and mental health. These visits provide an opportunity to address any concerns related to mental health. 

Dr. Flechas stresses the importance of considering various factors that contribute to mental well-being, such as sleep patterns, healthy eating habits, exercise, friendships and hobbies. All of these strengthen mental health.

Establish Healthy Sleep Habits

Ensuring children get enough sleep is vital for their mental health and academic performance. Limiting screen time before bed and setting routines help children develop good sleep habits. 

During the summer kids often sleep later and are able to get the amount of sleep their bodies need, which is about 10-12 hours per night. With early start times and even earlier bus routes, Dr. Flechas recommends gradually adjusting bedtime schedules to align with school requirements before it’s time to head back to class. 

It takes weeks to get back into a good sleep-wake cycle, so starting earlier will keep early bedtime from feeling like a punishment. It’s just part of your family’s natural routine. Establishing routines and providing structure in daily life helps children feel secure and provides a sense of predictability. 

Recognize Red Flags

Parents should be vigilant about any drastic changes in their child’s behavior, such as increased withdrawal, declining grades, weight changes or unexplained irritability. These could be indicators of underlying mental health concerns. 

Start the conversation with your pediatrician about any concern, as they can help guide parents through what next steps may be needed. It isn’t automatically medication.

Levels of Mental Healthcare

Dr. Flechas explains her three-tiered approach to mental healthcare: 

  1. self-care
  2. talk therapy
  3. medication

Encouraging healthy coping mechanisms, engaging in therapeutic discussions and fostering better coping skills for both children and parents are essential before considering medication. 

Some self-care ideas Dr. Flechas recommends include activities that reduce stress and increase relaxation: yoga for kids, guided meditations, working on puzzles or LEGO sets, and coloring. Things that a child can zone out and enjoy without a screen can help strengthen their mental health.

Social Support and Playdates

Learning how to be a good friend and developing a strong social network are life skills all children can develop.

Encouraging kids to develop friendships beyond the school environment through playdates, joining clubs or participating in sports can help foster social connections and reduce feelings of isolation or anxiety.

Supporting children’s mental health during the back-to-school season requires proactive involvement from parents. ParentingU is here to help you through this amazing journey we call parenting.

An ongoing relationship with your pediatrician is important for your child’s mental health and overall well-being.

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