10 tips to care for kids’ mental health as they return to school - MetroFamily Magazine
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10 tips to care for kids’ mental health as they return to school

By 988 Oklahoma Mental Health Lifeline

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 5 minutes 

The return to school can bring excitement for some students — and increased anxiety and even depression for others. Brittany Couch, senior coordinator of behavioral interventions services and supports in schools, and Marqus Butler, senior manager of school-based initiatives, both with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services, share their top 10 tips for parents to prioritize kids’ mental health as they return to school this fall:

  1. Watch for signs of anxiety and depression. Signs of anxiety or depression in children can include sleeping too much or too little, irritability, isolation, becoming overly dismissive, anger or hostility, disinterest in people and activities they normally enjoy, withdrawal or self-harm. Keep track of the frequency and intensity of their symptoms — are they exhibiting repeated, unusual symptoms more than 4-5 times over 7 days, or more than 15 days in a month? On an intensity scale of 1-10, does your child seem to be reacting consistently at 10 or above? First, have a conversation with your child about how they are feeling; then call their pediatrician. Of note: kids can be experiencing anxiety or depression WITHOUT exhibiting any of the “common” signs. If a child’s behavior, reactions or interactions seem abnormal or out of character or you have a gut instinct that something is off, call their pediatrician about any mental health concerns. If a child is irritable or angry to the point of physical violence, call 988, Oklahoma’s Mental Health Lifeline, immediately.
  2. Pay attention to physical symptoms that could indicate anxiety or depression. When kids (or adults for that matter!) have big emotions, those can manifest in physical symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, bloating or a frequent need to use the bathroom. Kids may visit the school nurse often or complain at home that they just don’t feel great physically, even when there is no underlying medical condition.
  3. Help your child develop relationships outside of the home. Make a list of trusted adults your child feels safe with. At school, who can they go to if they’re having a hard day or have something to celebrate? Help your child connect with some of their school friends before the year starts. If they’re going to a new school, contact the school before the year begins to arrange a time to visit and meet some of the staff. Encourage your child to create an “About Me” paper, video or PowerPoint to present to their teacher(s).
  4. Prepare kids for their new school year routine. If your child is dealing with anxiety or depression, or they are prone to the back-to-school jitters, providing clear information about their school days can encourage a sense of calm. Before the school year begins, find out if you can visit the school when it’s less populated (sometime other than Meet the Teacher or Back to School night) to walk the halls and find the places your child will need to navigate.  Drive the route to school or show kids where the bus will pick them up, where it drops them off in the morning and where they board it after school.
  5. Establish at-home routines — and make them fun. Create feelings of excitement to counteract anxiety. Ask your child if they’d like to plan their outfit for the first day or pack their backpack with their school supplies. Celebrate special milestones, like going to their first day at school, first day at a new school or first day of senior year. Establish a consistent age- and developmentally-appropriate bedtime routine a week or more before their first day. Create a fun playlist for at home that they could also listen to on the way to school. Help your child make a list of all the positives about going back to school and what they are looking forward to.
  6. Check in regularly with how your child is feeling. Ask your child how their mental and emotional health is faring. Conversations with tweens and teens can be tricky because they often feel awkward about direct conversations with parents or caregivers. Car rides are a great time to initiate conversations as they may open up more when you’re not eye-to-eye. Or engage in an activity your child enjoys — perhaps playing disc golf, taking the dog for a walk or playing video games — and check in with them as you spend time together. Give them the space and time to share and keep your reactions (verbally and nonverbally) neutral. If you feel your parent-child relationship is in need of repair or a mediator, consider family therapy to help reestablish open lines of communication and position yourself as a trusted, safe adult.
  7. Talk to kids about how social media impacts their mental health. While it’s imperative to be mindful of the age at which you allow your child access to social media, based on their maturity, responsibility and development, banning it outright may just make it more appealing. Discuss how consuming too much social media can have a direct, negative impact on their mental health, as well as how social media algorithms work so they understand how their behaviors and media consumption affect what they see online. If they’re viewing destructive content, eventually their whole feed will reinforce unhealthy coping strategies and can exacerbate anxiety and depression. Ensure you have filters on their devices — and know filters don’t catch everything. Monitor your child’s devices and social media accounts directly on a consistent basis.
  8. Talk to kids about (and watch for signs of) substance use. According to the Oklahoma Prevention Needs Assessment, when a child has a parent or caregiver who has talked with them about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, vaping and marijuana, that alone lowers their prevalence of experimenting with substances. Kids dealing with anxiety or depression may be more likely to use substances as a self-medicating coping strategy. Keep your prescription medications and any products containing marijuana in a secure medication lock box out of sight. If you think your child is using substances, call Oklahoma’s Mental Health Lifeline 988 for resources and support. Parents can also complete training through ODMHSAS to receive a Narcan kit, which can save a life in case of an opioid overdose. The kits are safe to use on teens and adults and can be kept alongside traditional first aid kits. For parents of tweens and teens, having this kit in your home also provides safety when your child’s friends come to visit.
  9. Establish open communication with your child’s teacher and school. Let your child’s teacher and/or counselor know if your child is dealing with mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression and establish periodic communication. Share what therapies or interventions the child is receiving as well as strategies or affirmations that have been helpful at home or in therapy. Ask what supports are available to your child during the school day — is there a calm-down space? Would a one-time or consistent meeting with the school counselor be beneficial? With tweens and teens, talk with them first before you contact the school so your child can help you come up with a game plan about how much information to share. Let your child know it can be beneficial for their teacher or counselor to understand what they are going through so they have a built-in support system at school.
  10. Strive to respond instead of react and resist being dismissive. When kids display unfavorable or difficult behaviors, instead of moving straight to discipline or punishment, slow down to consider what could be the root cause of the behavior. Invite conversation by saying: “This isn’t like you — how are you feeling?” It’s always OK to take a deep breath, take a break and walk away until you’re calm enough to address the situation. Though a child’s nerves over back to school may seem silly to parents, school is at the center of kids’ worlds and where they spend most of their time. Lead with empathy and understanding, affirm their feelings (“I remember how hard it was when a friend excluded me.”) and ask how you can best support them.

Parents can call or text 988, Oklahoma’s Mental Health Lifeline, with any questions or concerns about their kid’s mental health, or their own. Receive free support 24/7 for mental health crises or to help prevent a crisis. Operators are local licensed and certified health crisis specialists who answer calls, connect to and dispatch local services and mobile crisis teams as needed. For more information about 988, visit 988Oklahoma.com.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a 10-month series of articles and podcasts with 988 Mental Health Lifeline. Find the full series at metrofamilymagazine.com/mental-health.

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