Summer is over, the new school year is in full swing, and we are all adjusting to our new routines. Whether you're over the moon or an anxious mess, let's face it... returning to school is yet another major change for our kids in a year already filled with uncertainty. From wearing masks to the rise in COVID cases, we just don't know what this year is going to look like. But what we do know is that this past year and a half has taken a toll on our kids' mental health.
It's no surprise that you're wondering: "How the heck do I protect my kids' mental health, when I'm also struggling to hold everything together?"
Now, I won't be able to completely ease your mind; however, I can outline 10 proven strategies that may help your family.
I'm Dr. Mercedes, a child psychologist and parenting expert. I run the clinical team at Manatee, a virtual mental health clinic that helps families thrive and overcome the mental health challenges during these tumultuous times.
I've had a front row seat to the amazing resourcefulness, patience, flexibility, and determination of parents. It's not an easy task to make your kids feel safe, secure, and confident during a pandemic that has left us all trying to ground ourselves again. Which brings me to a key point; there is a lot of pressure on this school year for most parents and kids. We all ask ourselves, "How can we make up for lost time?" "How can I ensure that my kid is thriving and performing in school AND feeling ok?" "Can they make friends again?" "How much anxiety is normal?"
Well, if we've learned anything during the Olympics from Simone Biles (and many other athletes), it's that mental health is the foundation for anything we want to accomplish. Similarly, kids cannot excel if they are emotionally and mentally struggling. So, if we want our kids to thrive in school, in their social lives, and with their families, we must focus on setting their mental health up for success.
10 ways to strengthen your kids mental health
1. Stay positive AND realistic
Kids will have ups and downs. We all have ups and downs. Make sure you ask open-ended questions about how they are feeling in general, then about school, with their friends, and about life. Avoid being overly optimistic by saying things like: "It's going to be a great year!" "You'll be fine!" Instead, be supportive and realistic. Let them know that some days do feel easier than others, but they can do hard things and will be able to overcome challenges. If they have bad days, it doesn't mean that the entire year will be difficult. Some key questions to get the conversation started:
- How are you feeling about being back in school? How is it going with your friends?
- What have you enjoyed the most?
- What has been the hardest so far? What has helped you on the harder days? How can I help you?
2. Create a family wellbeing manifesto
A family manifesto communicates to your kids, "this is what we value as a family". It shows unity and helps emphasize your values and goals. This is a great way to practice point #1. Stick it on the fridge door or somewhere else that's visible, so kids and parents have a daily reminder. For inspiration, take a look at Manatee's family manifesto that we love and use with our own kids!
3. Listen to your kid
Prioritize connecting with your child. Listen to what they are interested in, what is bothering them and what is exciting. Try to not ask too many questions, but listen and watch how they respond. This will help you pick up on any mood changes quickly. Research shows even 15 minutes dedicated to connecting and learning about your kid or partner's world makes a huge difference (e.g., catching up in the car, asking for input on a work project, extra snuggles before bed or cooking together). You do not need to schedule something extra in, it's all about being truly present and making your kid or partner feel seen.
4. Focus on gains, not losses
We know kids are probably a little behind academically and socially. We know kids have missed out on opportunities, and for many of us our social skills have taken a hit. Some kids have regressed, and lost skills that they had previously mastered. Focusing on the losses will only teach your child to do the same. Instead, what have they gained? What growth can you celebrate? Are they more independent learners now? Were they able to spend more time with siblings or parents? Did they get better at using technology? Did they discover a new interest or hobby at home? Did they learn how to be flexible and adapt to new situations? Have they gained confidence after overcoming these challenges? Highlight these important lessons!
5. Praise effort
... and not grades or outcomes! This is always recommended, but particularly this year when parents, kids, and teachers may be extra concerned about "falling behind." If your kid is trying their best, they are doing great! Focus on their hard work, practice, positive habits and continued discipline. These skills are the cornerstones of success. Marry the process, not the results.
6. Stick to a routine
Many of our routines went out the window last year, however, morning and night routines are very important, even for teens! It doesn't have to be clockwork everyday, but a schedule helps your kids create healthy habits and avoid the dreaded daily arguments. In fact, routines help kids get more sleep (vital to learn and develop social emotional skills), build confidence and independence, and reduce stress and anxiety!
7. Relaxation, exercise, nutrition and sleep
I know. Easier said than done, but these "four pillars of health" are vital to maintain mental health and should be considered as you build your family's routine. Brainstorm creative and fun solutions with your kids, for example; make a weekend family activity rotation that gets you outside or introduce a fun mealtime schedule like 'meatless Mondays' 'taco Tuesdays' 'veggie Fridays', etc. The key is to make it work for your family, and though you may get some crazy suggestions, letting your kids have a say will likely get them excited.
8. Don't over-schedule
Most of us are no longer used to being in a social setting for many hours a day. School is likely EXHAUSTING for many kids right now and so are the emotional waves that come with a new school year. Avoid overscheduling kids or yourself! Allow an hour of downtime after kids come home from school. Us humans need that mental relaxation to perform well. Whenever possible, keep 2 hours of 'unscheduled' time in everyone's days. Time for your brain to decompress and be bored are very important for brain development, creativity and problem solving skills.
9. Make a 'Coping Toolbox' together
Create a list of tools with your kids that they can use when they are upset (e.g. going for a walk, calling a friend, listening to music). For inspiration, check out our self-care tool. When we are upset, we have a very hard time thinking of what may help us, so building one ahead of time can be helpful. If they use one of their 'coping tools', be sure to praise your kid. For example, if your child is angry and goes outside to kick a soccer ball, you can say; "That is such a great way of letting your feelings out. I'm proud of you!" You can also ask what you can do to help when they are in a funk. Let your child complete this activity to give you (or any other trusted adult, like a teacher), a lot of clarity on what is actually helpful for your kid.
10. Build a community
For you and your kid. No one understands what you are going through like people in the same situation. Whether it's a new school, or going back to school, it is important for kids to feel connected to their teachers and other students. Help them have a sense of belonging. For example: Can they join a club? Volunteer to help younger students? Can you volunteer for school activities? Schedule a monthly activity with other school parents?
But most importantly, pay attention to your kids as they adjust. Notice any changes and learn the mental health warning signs. Too many kids struggle for too long before their parents notice. If you aren't sure if your kid may need more support, talk to their school counselor, a therapist, or book a free 20 min session with a family expert at Manatee.
Check out Manatee's back to school checklist for other tips and ideas to set your family up for success now that school is in full swing!