It’s natural for kids to feel apprehensive about going back to school, but those worries might be a little more challenging these days. According to recent research, the mental health of kids living in the US is in crisis.
A survey of 1,007 American parents conducted in June 2022 by Verywell Mind and Parents found that 54 percent of parents are at least somewhat concerned about their kid’s mental health. About 1 in 3 (35 percent) said their child had shown signs of struggle or emotional distress at least once a week.
Mental health is complex, with many contributing factors, but the survey found that school is the biggest contributing factor to children’s stress, closely followed by feeling misunderstood, friendships, and the pandemic.
Kids of all ages can have mental health issues, says Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind. “Parents often make assumptions about the kids’ mental health by saying things like, ‘They’re too young to have mental health issues,’ or ‘Their grades are fine so they must be OK.’ But declining grades aren’t the only symptom they might experience.” And there may be other factors at play.
Here’s what your kid might be worrying about, and how to help them.
Ongoing COVID-19 Stress
A 2020 survey of 1,000 parents around the country, facilitated by the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, reported that 71 percent of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health. Plus, 69 percent said the pandemic was the worst thing to happen to their child.
Stress relating to COVID-19 is understandable, says Zishan Khan, MD, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “It’s very common for children to continue to have anxiety regarding life now that things are slowly improving since the beginning of the pandemic,” he says.
Zishan Khan, MD
Lots of children struggle with having to return to school after getting comfortable with virtual learning and having to leave the safety and comfort of their home.
This anxiety doesn’t necessarily only have to do with a fear of getting sick or spreading the virus to others. “Lots of children struggle with having to return to school after getting comfortable with virtual learning and having to leave the safety and comfort of their home,” Dr. Khan says.
Dr. Khan continues, “They may have developed poor habits as a result of unstructured daily living or lack of their usual discipline that they normally would have had during the school year when they attended in person.”
Many people may not truly realize how the ability to socialize and connect with others has been impacted by the pandemic. “A lot of children find it difficult to interact with their peers and have a lot of anxiety around large groups of people, simply due to not being used to it any longer,” says Dr. Khan. “This is especially true of those children that were toddlers or just entering Pre-Kindergarten/Kindergarten in the fall of 2020.”
Picking Up on Adult Worries
The more we understand about children’s mental health, the more we realize that so-called “adult” worries (rising living costs, political unrest, etc, etc) have a massive impact on the youngest members of our families too.
Issues that affect parents have a trickle-down effect on kids for several reasons. “If parents are stressed, kids will pick up on that,” says Morin. “Additionally, kids may be impacted by adult issues indirectly as their parents’ behavior changes, such as not driving as much due to the rise in gas prices.”
Kids need to feel heard and validated, so even if you think their emotions are irrational or exaggerated, it’s important to acknowledge how they feel. “Rather than say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ say something like, ‘I know you’re really worried about this,'” says Morin.
Educating your child about anxiety helps them learn to recognize the physical and emotional symptoms they’re experiencing. And modeling healthy coping skills, like exercising, doing something creative, or talking about your feelings, equips with with crucial tools for the rest of their life.
Helping Your Child Transition Back to School
Whatever is at the root of your child’s back-to-school worries, you can do several things to help make the transition less stressful.
Doreen Marshall, PhD, the Vice President of Mission Engagement at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, recommends encouraging your child to connect to their school’s mental health resources, learn what services are available, and utilize them when needed.
Remember, your child won’t be the only one feeling like this, and by having an open, honest conversation about mental health you can normalize taking proactive steps to protect their mental health and build resiliency. “Empower them to solve problems rather than fixing issues for them,” says Morin. “Sit down and brainstorm strategies that may help and encourage them to pick the solution they want to try.”
Doreen Marshall, PhD
Reach out if you need support—the best thing we can do for those around us is to model taking care of our own mental health.
Make your own mental health a priority too. “Reach out if you need support—the best thing we can do for those around us is to model taking care of our own mental health,” says Marshall. “Addressing your own worries will better equip you to support your child through this time.”
Morin also advises establishing predictable routines for your kids. “When they know what to expect, they’ll feel less anxious about what comes next,” she says.
The occasional mental health day can be helpful if it’s used to help your child reset, learn new coping skills, or get treatment for mental health. But Morin warns that they should be used with caution.
“Avoidance makes anxiety worse,” she says. “So allowing a child to stay home to avoid giving a presentation in front of the class only provides temporary relief. They may be better served going to school and facing their fear with some extra support or conditions put into place.”
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