Back to school: How to support your child’s mental health

August 23, 2022 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD
back to school

Many children have butterflies when heading back to school. Will they like their new teacher? Will their friends be in their class? What if they forget their homework? But beyond these typical worries, some school age children experience higher levels of anxiety and other mental health issues like depression. The disruptions of the pandemic—remote learning, spending long periods away from other children, worries about illness, the loss of a loved one—have contributed to an increase in the number of children experiencing mental health issues. Early in the pandemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry declared an emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

This rise in mental health issues in children started before the pandemic. One study found that the number of children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder rose 27% and the number with depression increased 24% between 2016 and 2019. And those numbers continue to increase. An April 2022 poll found that 73% of parents felt their child would benefit from mental health counseling, up from 68% in February 2021.

If you’re a parent or caregiver, there are several steps you can take to support your child’s mental wellbeing as they head back to school:

  • Build a bedtime routine and stick with it. Even without a pandemic, it can be difficult for school age children to make the transition from a relaxed summer schedule and later bedtimes to the routines and demands of the school year. Sleep is an essential part of mental wellbeing, so help your child build healthy sleep habits in the run up to the new school year. Set a regular bedtime and stick with it, including on the weekend. Help your child wind down before bed by ending screen time at least an hour before bed. Try relaxing activities like a soothing bath, reading together, or listening to a calming meditation or breathing exercise designed for kids.
  • Let your children know what to expect. The past two school years haven’t been normal ones. Most schools are returning to something closer to what school looked like pre-pandemic—in-person learning, no masks, regular sports and after school activities. Talk with children about what a typical school day will look like this year—how they’ll get to school, what time it starts and ends, when lunch and recess are, who their teacher will be. If possible, take your child to visit their school so they can get the lay of the land. Some schools host back to school visits so students can meet their teachers and see their classrooms.
  • Find out what they’re thinking and feeling. While some children’s school-related anxiety may be easy to spot, others may hide their feelings. Start a conversation with your children about going back to school. Ask what they’re excited about, what they have questions about, and if there’s anything they’re nervous or unsure about. Avoid offering pat reassurances that everything will be fine and instead, brainstorm with your children about different ways they can handle their worries or concerns. And let them know that you’re always available to listen and help.

Signs of mental health issues to watch for

Getting your child help for anxiety or depression when they first start experiencing these issues can give them the tools they need to manage their mental wellbeing and help them feel empowered. For elementary school age children, be on the lookout for these signs:

  • Withdrawing from friends and activities they enjoy
  • Changes in eating habits, for example several days in a row of not eating their lunch at school
  • Not wanting to use the bathroom at school
  • Getting very upset about being corrected, even if the criticism is constructive and presented in a positive way
  • Feeling anxious or sad frequently or having symptoms of anxiety or depression that interfere with everyday life functioning
  • Insomnia and physical symptoms without a clear medical cause like stomachaches and headaches

It also can be helpful to start a dialogue with your child’s teacher. Let the teacher know what you’re seeing at home and ask how your child is acting at school. Some children seem happy at home but act differently at school.

If you feel your child would benefit from working with a mental health provider, ask your pediatrician for a recommendation or talk with a health advisor who can connect you with mental health providers who specialize in children’s mental health.