HELPING CHILDREN MANAGE THEIR MENTAL HEALTH
Adults aren’t the only ones who need to protect their mental health. Many children experience elevated stress levels when it comes to school. Accelerated development causes stress for many young children. “This means pressure to grow up too fast, [including] less recreational time and play-based activities in school,” says Dr. Emily Boshkoff, a clinical psychologist and behavior analyst who works with children and teenagers at Poehailos, Dupont & Associates in Charlottesville.
Recent Causes of Stress in Kids
Being absent from school for an extended period of time can cause stress and anxiety for kids when it’s time to return. They may be worried about their relationships with peers and teachers, have trouble adjusting to a changing routine, or struggle to catch up with academics they have missed. For kids who experience long absences (a week or more), parents can help by:
- Supporting school work, both during the absence and once your child returns to school;
- Communicating with teachers to explain the situation and make sure your child has their assignments; and
- Facilitating online interaction with friends, through social media or chat software.
More recently, all children have experienced a lack of connection to school during COVID. As parents, children and teachers work together to navigate returning back to school, many families are experiencing elevated stress levels right now.
While it is likely that children having been out of school for such an extended period of time will impact them both academically and socially, there is currently no way to predict what that impact will be. But, there are many ways you can help your children manage their stress about being the upcoming transition.
How to Help Manage Stress in Kids
- Answer questions in an age-appropriate way.
- Don’t overshare your own concerns.
- Work together to balance learning and playing.
- Support kids with their academic work.
- Facilitate virtual socializing with friends.
- Give children time to explore their own interests.
- Make time for outdoor play and exercise.
- Encourage lots of reading.
“The one positive thing I keep telling people is that at least we are all in this together.”
“In a situation like we are currently in, it’s difficult to say how this will impact kids,” says Boshkoff. In such an unprecedented situation, the best thing parents can do is continue to be open and honest with their children, while still giving them space to act like kids. “The one positive thing I keep telling people is that at least we are all in this together. Whatever your child is experiencing is likely similar to many other children.”
Signs & Symptoms of Stress in Kids
Children of any age often show stress physically with stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, irritability and changes in sleep or eating habits. Stressed or anxious teens often pull away from family or friends. “This is a hard one because for teenagers it is developmentally typical… to put distance between themselves and their parents,” says Boshkoff.
Talking to Your Child About Managing Stress
Parents can help children identify and manage stress. These talks should be open, honest and developmentally appropriate. With younger kids, Dr. Boshkoff says, “You can often follow their lead when answering their questions, talking about issues as they naturally come up at school.” Be reassuring, and use language they can understand. For older children, parents may need to prompt these conversations. Use what’s going on in your child’s life, such as a friend who is bullied or a big test that doesn’t go well, to initiate a discussion, even if your child seems resistant.
During these talks, focus on listening. When teenagers tell us about stressors, we feel pressure to use it as a teaching opportunity. But, that can shut down communication with your child. Instead, be attentive and validate their feelings. “Be a listener, not a lecturer,” she adds.
When to Seek Help for Kids
Sometimes children need extra help to manage their mental health. Signs that a child may be experiencing significant stress, anxiety or depression include:
- Changes in sleep or appetite;
- Weight loss or weight gain;
- Losing interest in activities or friends;
- Extreme irritability;
- Crying spells;
- Intrusive thoughts;
- Talking about suicide or self-harm; and
- Statements like “I feel like it would be easier if I weren’t here.”
Usually, parents need to watch for these symptoms, though older kids may tell you directly how they feel. “If they say things like ‘I feel really stressed, I think I need to talk to someone,’ take them seriously!” Boshkoff adds.
If you notice any of these warning signs, talk with your child’s doctor. You should be able to schedule an appointment quickly, and a pediatrician can suggest next steps or recommend a therapist who works with children.
To find more resources for understanding and managing school-related stress, visit www.psychologytoday.com.
is a freelance writer, CharlottesvilleFamily’s Health Editor and mother to one busy toddler. You can see more of her work at katharine-writes.com.
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