5 ways to help support your child’s back-to-school mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just tested adults, it may also have taken a toll on children and teenagers, some of whom may be concerned about heading into another school year.

In a recent study, one-third of parents described their child’s emotional health as worse than before COVID-19. Nearly two-thirds of parents in the same study reported their child has recently experienced a mental or emotional challenge.

When asked themselves, half of teens in the study reported experiencing mental or emotional health challenges — citing anxiety, trouble concentrating and loneliness as the biggest issues. Just under 50% of teens also said they are concerned about being emotionally ready for the new school year.

“It is crucial to provide our kids and teens with the necessary support, structure and tools to help them manage their feelings and adjust to ongoing changes of daily life,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Employer and Individual.

Five suggestions that may help your child’s emotional well-being

1. Create routines at home

What time does the family sit down for dinner? When is "lights out" time at your house? What time do alarm clocks ring? The answers are important. Sticking to set schedules is important for getting a good night’s sleep and can help create a predictability at home that may help young people better cope with changes in other areas of their lives.

2. Limit news coverage

A top worry for parents and students is how long the pandemic will last, with 71% of teens saying they are at least moderately concerned about it. Newscasts and social media feeds can help you stay informed, but too much coverage may contribute to anxiety. Spending 15-30 minutes with news updates a couple times a day is likely enough to stay up-to-date but not become overwhelmed.

3. Lead by example

Your student may be watching how you are readying for the school year, so model good behavior. Make this a “do as I do” moment. Eat right, exercise and get the sleep you need to stay positive, even during hectic times. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says coping with stress in a healthy way can make you and the people you care about more resilient.

4. Be a good listener

Adolescents like their space, but make sure your children know they can come to you with questions or to share their feelings any time. Pay attention for changes in their behavior or schoolwork. And when they do talk about being scared or nervous, validate their feelings, help them feel secure, and let them know it’s possible to feel better.

“Remind them that you are available,” said. Dr. Randall. “Explain that it’s normal to feel upset or anxious, especially during periods of change.”

You may also want to share how you’ve managed tough times to help them learn from your experience. For adolescents, consider pointing out self-care tools like the Sanvello app that help with navigating difficult emotions.

5. Watch for signs of anxiety

Focus on your teen’s overall disposition — not just what they’re saying — for a reading on how they’re handling the return to school. Take note of things like reoccurring jitteriness, glumness or withdrawal, which may signal ongoing anxiety. Be alert to sudden changes in mood or behavior.

Common signs of anxiety in young people may include:

  • Unusual irritability or jumpiness
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Concentration problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • A poor appetite or overeating

You may be able to help with mild bouts of these issues, but if any intensify and persist to the point of disrupting your child’s daily life, you will want to involve expert support — and sooner rather than later. Your family doctor or pediatrician is a good place to start. You may also have access to virtual visits for mental health, which have recently been made more widely available.

“It’s critical for parents to seek professional help, when necessary, especially if a child is behaving uncharacteristically for extended periods of time,” Dr. Randall said.

Learn more about mental health resources.

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