Prioritizing your child’s mental health this back-to-school season

It’s that time of year when families are busy checking off those back-to-school lists. You’re likely making sure your student has the right notebooks, folders, pens and pencils – but even more important than school supplies is making sure your child is feeling emotionally ready to start the school year.

This may be especially true for young girls. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), young girls in the United States said they felt persistently sad or hopeless at double the rate of boys. On top of that, nearly 1 in 3 girls in the study said they seriously considered attempting suicide, which is up nearly 60% in the last decade.

How do you gauge how your child is feeling?

Keep an eye on their behaviors and moods. A check-in with their doctor may also be helpful.

“You may think of your child’s annual checkup for things like vaccines, but it’s also a good place to check in on their mental health,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare. “Getting advice in a fall visit may help prevent problems later in the school year.”

Dr. Randall says a well-child visit is an opportunity for a conversation with your child’s doctor about any behavioral changes you may have noticed.

Before an appointment, focus on your child’s overall disposition — not just what they’re saying — to better understand on how they’re handling the return to school.

Here’s a short list of things to watch for:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Avoidance of social interactions
  • Bouts of extreme irritability
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Sleep problems
  • Frequent ailments like headaches or stomachaches
  • Concentration problems
  • Changes in academic performance

Ask your child’s primary care doctor for guidance on how best to support your child. You may be able to help with mild bouts of emotional issues, but if any intensify and persist to the point of disrupting your child’s daily life, you’ll want to involve expert support — and sooner rather than later.

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

Meanwhile, Dr. Randall suggests these at-home steps  to help ease general stress that may surface in the transition back to class:

1. Create routines

What time does the family sit down for dinner? When is “lights out” at night? What time do alarm clocks ring? The answers are important. Sticking to schedules can create consistency at home that may help your child feel more confident, secure and stable.

2. Set online limits

Teens may tell you that social media helps them feel connected, but too much of it may cause stress and anxiety. To help limit social media use, consider creating family rules around when and where it’s OK to be on it. For instance, “no screen-time rules” could be in effect:

  • During meals
  • In bedrooms
  • After 9 p.m.
  • Until homework is done

3. Be a good listener

School-aged kids like their space, but make sure your child knows they can come to you anytime with questions or to share their feelings. If they do talk about being scared or nervous, validate their feelings. Listen intently and avoid asking too many questions. Help them feel secure and let them know it’s possible to feel better.

“Remember these can be sensitive topics for your child,” Dr. Randall said. “Empathy, openness and patience can go a long way in helping them feel heard and optimistic that they’ll be OK.”

One last thing: 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 boost resilience.

If you or someone you care about is having thoughts of suicide or experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, help is available 24 hours a day. Call or text 988 anytime for caring support from a trained crisis counselor through the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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