Back-to-School Mental Health Guide | Everyday Health

Sleep

Good quality sleep is important for sustaining your mental health. Inadequate sleep can negatively affect your mood, according to an article published in February 2023 in the Journal of Sleep Research. A consistent sleep schedule helps students get through their busy day. The same article found that students who go to sleep and wake at the same time every day have fewer depressive symptoms than students who do not have a sleep schedule.

“Science shows that the less sleep we get, the more cranky, emotional, and reactive we become,” says mental health therapist Krissy White, a counselor in private practice in Katy, Texas. She recommends creating a relaxing and consistent sleep routine.

“Set a morning alarm when you start to get ready for bed. After brushing your teeth and doing your skin routine, do yoga, read a good book, or meditate before bed. It will help you destress, calm your mind, and feel relaxed before drifting off to sleep,” White adds.

Scheduling

Kids thrive when they know what their expectations are throughout the day. Niloufar Esmaeilpour, founder of Lotus Therapy in British Columbia, Canada, says, “Having a consistent routine can help you feel more in control and less stressed.”

Esmaeilpour recommends that students use planners or apps to keep everything in order. Helping your child map out study time, assignments, and other activities throughout the day, week, and month can make it easier for them to track their responsibilities.

Other professionals agree. “Establishing a consistent routine is one effective strategy to support children’s mental health as the new school year begins. Routines provide children a sense of security and predictability, thus reducing stress and anxiety,” says Steve Carleton, LCSW, a therapist and leadership coach at Gallus Detox in Denver.

In addition to fixed times for waking up, enjoying meals, completing schoolwork, and getting ready for bedtime, Carleton recommends adding fun and relaxation to the daily schedule — ensuring a balance between work and play. Routines shouldn’t feel restrictive but rather provide a comforting framework for the day, reassuring children so that they know what to expect.

Self-Care

“Taking time for self-care will help everyone stay physically and mentally healthy during this potentially stressful time,” says Praveen Guntipalli, MD, a board-certified internal medicine and obesity medicine specialist and owner of Sanjiva Medical Spa in Dallas.

Self-care can look like:

  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Eating healthy foods
  • Managing stress through exercises such as yoga
  • Taking regular breaks throughout the day

Make a Transition Plan

Near the start of the school year, review the new routines that will take place with your family. Your child may want to be involved in the planning and preparation for the year. Counseling psychologist Raffaello Antonino, PhD, at Therapy Central LLP in London, has some transition recommendations:

  • Set an earlier bedtime.
  • Read educational materials.
  • Do light schoolwork to reset their academic mindset.

Kids are not a monolithic group, and everyone has their own way of adjusting to the new school year. “School-aged children who are sensitive or easily worried, or those who have developmental delays, may need extra time to adjust,” explains Karen Remley, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, on a podcast episode from July 2021 called “Transitioning Back to School or Early Child Education.”

Finding the right balance between schoolwork and life can take some work, but having tools in place can set your child up for a wonderful year. Plan ahead and be flexible when plans don’t work as intended. Find your support through friends and family who you can depend on.

Build a Support System

It’s important for your child to communicate their feelings and needs, according to Ian Jackson, a licensed professional counselor at Recovery Unplugged in Brentwood, Tennessee. If your child is struggling, he recommends telling them:

  • Talk to teachers. If you’re struggling academically, let your teachers know. They can provide support or direct you to resources that can help.
  • Reach out to friends and family. Sharing your feelings with others can provide emotional relief, and they can offer advice or support.

Cultivate Positive Relationships

If your child is anxious about meeting friends, Parmar says you can encourage them to socialize by asking their classmates and teachers about themselves. Parmar also suggests that parents can do some of the following:

  • Arrange outings with their peers.
  • Enroll them in clubs or teams that match their interests and talents.
  • Teach them social skills such as greeting others, introducing themselves, asking questions, giving compliments, sharing, taking turns, and resolving conflicts.
  • Model positive and respectful interactions with others.

Encourage healthy boundaries with friends or potential romantic partners for older teens so they feel empowered to see or avoid people in and out of school. Open up the discussion about peer pressure and bullying before it might happen to make sure that they feel comfortable coming to you if they’re treated in a way that makes them uneasy.

Plan Ahead for Academic Stress

If time management is challenging for your child, try the “Pomodoro technique” — coined by Francesco Cirillo, a professional consultant from Italy — to tackle homework assignments. It started when he was a college student in the 1980s. He’d use a kitchen timer to do 25-minute chunks of focused work, and when the timer buzzed, he took a break. You can play around with the amount of time and see what works best for your family.

If your child is stressed by how long it takes to complete a task or the amount of homework overall, seek help from the school’s counselor and your child’s teachers. They may have some recommendations.

Practice Adult-Child Communication

Kids may not pick up on what you say as much as what you do, so it’s important to model positive behavior you want your child to adopt, according to an article published in the journal Social Development. Allow children to observe you interact with others, especially during conflict resolution, with patience and grace.

Some kids may not be receptive to answering yes or no questions about their school day. They may need to unwind after coming home. After they’re settled or during dinner, ask open-ended questions like, “What made you laugh today?” or “How did you feel today?”

If the child notices that someone in their class acts differently than most other students, be sure to model kindness and use neutral, person-first language to explain the child’s condition.

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