Parents, if you have school-age kids, you already know that September means sniffles, coughs, and fevers. But that’s not all they have to worry about. Returning to school can take a toll on kids’ mental health. Let’s talk about how to support your kiddo during this stressful time of the year.
Significantly increased mental workload and dramatically decreased sunshine form a pretty crummy baseline for every kid walking out to the bus stop at 6:50 a.m. But for some kids, that’s only the tip of the stress iceberg.
Social anxiety, short attention, too much energy, not enough energy, hunger, bullies, and tests all put a strain on a kid’s psychological and emotional resilience.
Sometimes circumstance makes those things difficult to remedy. But there are things you can do and prepare for to help fortify your child against the stress of the school day.
Open the lines of communication.
Whether or not they make it obvious, kids need an outlet. They’re constantly having new experiences, feeling new feelings, and learning new information about the world. They need help to process it all.
The best thing you can do for them in that regard is create open lines of communication. In other words, create opportunities where you and your kid are alone together without screens where you can ask them non-judgy questions about their day. And watch what happens.
Watch for signs of stress fatigue.
Sometimes kids don’t know themselves well enough to realize they need support. So instead of telling you that they’re stressed about something, they’ll show it.
Just like adults, kids will look for ways to escape stress by turning to screens, food, or distractions. They may also become fatigued, fall asleep in class, or have an excessively difficult time getting out of bed in the morning. Kids might also try to avoid school or after-school activities altogether if they don’t feel safe or if they’re worried about something.
If you feel out of touch with how your kid is doing (and odds are, they don’t really know either), pay attention to their behavior. What is their body language saying to you?
Fortify the body-brain connection.
One of the best things you can do for your child as they tackle psychological challenges is to make sure that their bodies are fortified.
There’s no way of knowing for sure what food your child eats at school. So breakfast may be your singular opportunity to fuel learning for that day. For best results, make sure kids get a carb (for energy), a healthy fat (to slow down how fast they burn that off), and a protein (for sustained energy later).
Besides needing adequate blood sugar for brain fuel, microbiota in the gut also have a steep impact on cognition, memory, and mood. The best rule of thumb for a healthy gut is to consume fewer processed foods. Shop the outside of the grocery store (green produce, meats, and healthy fats) for a healthier gut and better digestion.
Set up good systems for sleep.
We’re just going to say it: If your kid has unlimited access to their phones or other screens, they’re not getting enough sleep. Full stop.
Kids who don’t get sufficient sleep have a significantly harder time focusing and maintaining attention in school. (And hey, it’s not like it’s easy to begin with.)
Set your kid up for success by removing barriers to healthy sleep. Decide on appropriate hours for screen use and agree on methods to enforce those hours. Your kid will thank you for it later. And if they don’t, at least you can brag about your amazing parenting at the PTA meetings.
Helping kids isn’t always intuitive. (Actually, is it ever?) Kids are not good at expressing their needs, so it helps if you can decipher where their cup is running dry.
By looking out for signs of stress and preparing kids ahead of time, you can help your child fare better against the emotional and psychological challenges they’re sure to encounter this school year.