Prioritizing Kids’ Mental Health throughout the School Year - MetroFamily Magazine
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Prioritizing Kids’ Mental Health throughout the School Year

By 988 Oklahoma Mental Health Lifeline

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 4 minutes 

As kids headed back to the classroom in August, we shared 10 tips to care for their mental health amidst the often chaotic back-to-school season. Now that the dust has settled and students are back in a routine, how do parents effectively monitor our kids’ mental health over the long term? Sharon Buckley, chronic health recovery manager for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services, answers our top questions about identifying mental health concerns and maintaining mental well-being.

Now that we’ve worked through the back-to-school jitters, what are the ongoing signs or symptoms parents need to be aware of that could indicate a child is dealing with anxiety or depression?

Some physical symptoms that could indicate anxiety or depression include losing weight, sleeping too much or too little, changes in how they are eating and complaining about headaches or stomachaches. Also ask yourself if your child has been sadder than normal or has had emotional outbursts that are unusual for them. Other indictors could be that they are very irritable, they’re withdrawing from situations they normally wouldn’t avoid or not wanting to be around certain people anymore. They might display trouble concentrating.

If your child is constantly telling you they don’t want to go to school and that behavior seems intense, have a conversation with their teacher. Find out if the signs or symptoms you’re seeing at home are being displayed at school or are changing how they are doing at school.

And of course watch for drastic changes in mood or behavior and if they are hurting themselves or talking about wanting to hurt themselves.

How can parents tell if behavior changes or moods are temporary or a bigger issue?

Temporary changes in behavior are normal and are part of adjusting to getting back to school.

If they are continuing to have problems beyond the typical back-to-school time, and if those changes in behavior are lasting two weeks or longer, it could possibly indicate a mental health issue.

What advice can you share about effectively drawing kids into conversation, and getting more than the typical responses of “fine” when parents try to assess how they’re doing?

Make a habit of having conversations about what they are doing and how things are going every day. Questions that require a one-word answer can get the conversation started; then build from there with open-ended questions.

With younger kids, ask questions like: What was the best thing that happened to you today? What was the worst? What was the hardest thing you had to do today? The easiest? Did you raise your hand or did the teacher call on you today? Can you show me something you learned or did? Did you read any books? What did you like or not like about today? Do you have any questions about anything that happened to you today?

With older kids, you may have to be more creative, for example: Do you think [insert subject of choice] is too easy or too hard? What’s the biggest difference between what you’re doing this year and what you did last year?

A great follow-up to kids’ answers for any question is: Tell me more about that.

How can parents effectively get input from teachers about how kids are faring with their mental health at school?

Attend those parent-teacher conferences. Sometimes that can be challenging because they may only be 10 minutes. If the time for conference wont be enough, call ahead to get more time on the books. Go prepared with questions and be ready to take notes. Ask the teacher questions about your child’s work, how they are doing in class and anything you can do at home to help your child. It’s just as important to go to those conference when your child is a teen as there can be different problems and they may not talk with you as much about school as younger children do.

What kinds of family activities and practices can we incorporate to give everyone a mental health boost?

Mental health and physical health are connected and each affects the other. Improving one will help improve the other. Taking care of our family mental health comes down to developing coping mechanisms and having good health practices.

These are things like getting regular exercise every day, eating well-balanced meals, drinking plenty of water and making sleep a priority — especially with teens. In addition to these, try: practicing gratitude, spending time outside, putting phones and technology aside, learning new skills and spending time with friends. Plus, practice self-compassion and ask for help when you need it.

What’s one of your favorite mindfulness or emotional regulation techniques that families could do together?

Close your eyes and think about walking through a forest or in a field with nature all around you. This kind of practice improves emotional well-being. Building these habits as a kid really helps. But don’t expect kids to participate without you — the best way to teach is for the parents to demonstrate and participate yourself.

Getting outdoors gets easier as the weather cools down — for busy families, how can we increase the time we’re spending together outside?

Getting outdoors together is really important — there are a lot of good benefits health-wise and for family relationships. Time spent outdoors improves your breathing and lung capacity, improves sleep and reduces depression symptoms. You also get more motivated to exercise when you spend time outdoors.

As a family, you can do outdoor chores or yard work together. Play outside together, take a picnic to the park, play catch or just go for a walk together.

When you can’t get outside, you can still be active indoors. When you clean house, turn up the music and have a dance party. Play charades, have a hula hooping contest or play Simon Says.

Be intentional. Make being active a lifetime commitment for the whole family. You will all be healthier for it.

Editors note: This article is part of a 10-month series of articles and podcasts with 988 Oklahoma Mental Health Lifeline. Find the full series at

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