From buying new pencils and clothes to packing healthy lunches, much time and energy is spent making sure children are physically prepared for a new school year. However, it is equally important to take the time to ensure children are emotionally prepared as well. Children need to feel safe and emotionally content in school in order to be academically successful. As parents, you can be their strongest advocate to ensure that feeling of security.
Below are recommendations from Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr. Bela Sood for ways to help support a child’s mental and emotional health as they transition back to school.
Be positive. Help children work through their feelings of worry and nervousness at starting a new school year by sharing positive expectations. Let children know that a new school year is a chance to make new friends and learn interesting information and that you are confident in their ability to successfully handle a new year.
Check in EVERY day. For five to 10 minutes each day, give your child your undivided attention to share their daily events with you. Ideally, each child in your family can spend this time talking with you on their own. Be sure to talk about new and old peers; whether they like their classroom, teacher and peers; and whether they are finding anything difficult. Providing safe opportunities to talk about positive and negative experiences in these relationships gives you and your child a way to strengthen your own relationship. These conversations also help your child learn problem and conflict-solving solving skills early on in the year which can help with complications such as bullying.
Build strong lines of communication. Strong parent-child communication makes it easier to talk about important topics throughout the year and is important for building a strong relationship in general. Strong communication with children while in elementary school also paves the way for stronger relationships into adolescence. Keep in mind that:
- Not all children are as comfortable sitting and having a conversation and activities such as shooting hoops or doing a puzzle can make it easier to talk.
- Letting children know you care about what’s happening in their lives is helpful. Try sharing what you’ve been thinking rather than always beginning a conversation with a question.
- Listening without judging builds trust. Let your children finish before responding. Show you understand what your children are experiencing by sharing your own experience(s) and how you have successfully coped with difficult situations.
- Talking about everyday stuff is important. If your children learn they can trust you with the “little stuff,” they’re more likely to come to you with the “big stuff.”
Have a daily routine. Children thrive in a nurturing environment. They also need predictability in relationships and schedules. Establishing a predictable daily routine at the beginning of the school year can help a child feel more secure as they adjust to the many changes a new school year brings.
Encourage responsibility. Limited discipline and inadequate supervision, as well as inflexibility and rigid parenting, can all lead to adjustment problems in children. Finding the right balance is important. Keep this in mind as you set expectations for the responsibilities that come with a new school year: completing homework, making lunches, selecting clothes, etc. Giving children some age-appropriate responsibility in managing daily tasks creates a sense of accomplishment and develops self-confidence. Homework can be a particularly good opportunity for this. Help break down assignments into manageable sections, have a checklist, and check off items as they are completed.
With the many changes, challenges and new relationships a new school year brings, the first few months of the year can be a particularly stressful time for children and teens. Make sure your children know you love them, that you’re there to support them, and that they can come to you “no matter what.”
When to seek professional help
It is normal for children and teens to experience some symptoms of stress during the school year, however if a child or teen shows continued signs of being overly stressed, anxious or depressed do not hesitate to seek professional help/evaluation. Your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider can assist with a referral to a child psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker.
Children may complain of anger rather than sadness when depressed. When this is accompanied by a lack of energy, a lack of taking pleasure in things they enjoyed before or trouble sleeping or eating (too much or too little), it could be a sign that a child is depressed. Younger children who are depressed may also complain of stomach ache and headaches when there are no physical reasons for these issues.
For more information on children’s mental health, visit the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Facts for Families Guide. This section of their website provides up-to-date information on numerous issues that affect children, teenagers and their families.
Contributor: Dr. Satish Mahajan