As a parent of two, I live by a checklist during the back-to-school season. One, because I enjoy checking items off the list, and two, because I know in order to make my children feel secure in the new academic year I need to ensure they have the tools to prevail with confidence. To successfully do this, there are some key items not related to school supplies or bus routes that parents should consider including on their annual checklist.
If you are like me, every year you make sure your children get their “back to school sports physical.” This is a necessity and is probably at the top of your to-do list — but have you given much thought to your child’s mental health and it’s prevalence during the back-to-school season?
Back-to-school is a time when many parents become increasingly concerned about cyberbullying, suicidality, self-harm, and substance use. Whether you’re preparing for your first back-to-school season or sending your child off to college, here are the five items I recommend adding to your back-to-school checklist in regards to mental health:
1. Get to know the early signs of distress.
Back-to-school time is a season of change, and it’s important to understand that each child handles it differently. Even with plenty of preparation and support, some children can struggle with transitioning into a new grade, school, sports team, or even friend group. Parents can help their children manage this stressful period by monitoring for any changes in mood, sleep patterns or interest of being isolated from others. An example of an early sign of distress is when children pretend to be sick to stay home, especially when it becomes repetitive.
With older children, to avoid potentially negative coping mechanisms such as substance use, it’s recommended that parents communicate regularly with their teens and encourage healthy alternatives to managing stress such as exercising, eating nutritious meals, sleeping the appropriate amount of hours for their age, connecting with positive social groups and reflecting these coping mechanisms in their own actions.
2. Become familiar with the symptoms of common mental health conditions.
Some general symptoms of the most common mental health conditions in youth — anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression — include poor school performance or a decline in school performance, persistent boredom, frequent physical ailments such as headaches, stomachaches, sleep issues, signs of regression like bed wetting, and even aggressive behaviors. If you notice that your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s recommended to talk about it with a licensed provider to get a formal evaluation. For more information on recognizing common symptoms, I recommend Mental Health America’s Back-to-School Toolkit.
3. Learn how to talk with your child about mental health.
One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to gain an understanding of how to talk with your child about mental health, including substance use. To make these conversations a familiar practice in your family, it’s key to make sure your child understands that you will support them through every step.
Talk about mental health the same way you would talk about physical health. A technique I have used over the years is to ask my child to share at least one “high and low” aspect about their day. This gets the conversation started. To build trust around these potentially difficult conversations, parents should make every effort to express care and speak from a place of empathy. It’s recommended you use general language — or language not associated with a particular disorder — such as “I am worried about you”, “I am here for you”, or “Can we talk about what is going on with you?” This type of language will encourage your child to feel comfortable sharing the feelings they are currently experiencing.
4. Further your understanding of bullying.
It is very common for youth to feel ashamed or embarrassed when they are being bullied, meaning they are less likely to share with you what they are experiencing. This is why it’s important to not only make sure your child knows the lines of communication are always open, but to also understand the different forms bullying can take, such as inappropriate jokes, teasing, and even physical violence.
While there’s not anyway to prevent bullying, you can work with your child to create a proactive plan to approach the situation if it ever is needed. The plan can include steps to resolve the situation based on the severity of bullying and assignments to the person in charge of accomplishing the task, potentially yourself or the child. An important note is to not promise to keep the bullying a secret if it were to happen, as adult intervention by a parent or teacher is almost always needed. Familiarize yourself with the basics on bullying:
Bullying can have long-term psychological and psycho-social impact on both the offender and the victim, which is why early intervention is so important. When it comes to the mental health of victims, there is a clear link between bullying and depression, and bullying and substance use. Offenders are also at increased risk of substance use and of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system. To learn more about how to deal with bullies and develop a healthy relationship between a parent and teacher, check out PsychCentral’s Back to School Mental Health Guide.
5. Proactively find resources on mental health conditions and substance use.
Don’t wait until you’re concerned to find reliable and accurate resources. Right now is the perfect time to begin looking for resources that can help you navigate mental health conversations, as well as be an advocate for your child and others. By doing this proactively it allows you to begin making mental health a normal part of everyday conversation in your family, just as physical health is.
At Psych Hub, our online education library provides over 100 short, free videos on mental health, substance use, and suicide prevention with an entire library dedicated to youth topics.