- Returning back to school can be a stressful time for families.
- It’s also an opportunity to implement new, healthier routines, doctors say.
- Start with small changes and build on them over time.
You’ve purchased all the school supplies, picked out the first day-outfits, and practiced getting up early for the bus. But doctors say there’s another part of the back-to-school transition: fostering good mental health and making sure your children are ready to meet emotional challenges during the school year.
“We know having a healthy baseline of mental well-being helps with their concentration and energy,” says Mao Thwin Myint, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. Being mentally healthy also boosts your child’s academic prowess and ability to engage socially, he adds.
Here’s how to prioritize your family’s mental and emotional health as kids return to the classroom.
Start with the basics
The foundation for mental health begins with sleep habits, nutrition, and plenty of fresh air and exercise.
“Building healthy habits in these areas gives kids a strong foundation for overall well-being, from which mental well-being can develop,” said Ashley Harlow, a child and adolescent psychologist at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
Sleep, healthy food, and movement “provide fuel for the regulatory systems that help manage the physical, cognitive, and emotional demands of kids’ days,” Harlow said.
Most school-aged kids need nine to 12 hours of sleep each night. Creating a sleep hygiene routine, including turning off screens one hour before bedtime, can help kids get enough rest. Kids should also be active for at least an hour a day, which in turn can help them sleep better.
Focus on one change at a time
Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep is easier said than done — especially with busy school and sports schedules. Myint recommends starting slowly and giving yourself grace as you adjust your own healthy habits to demonstrate good self-care for your kids. Focus on one area — like kids getting at least nine hours of sleep. Once that feels comfortable, layer in another change, like spending more time outside.
“These can take time, yet, even small habits and skills will be an important foundation or seed from which we all can grow,” Myint said.
Talk about emotions
We learn as babies how to identify emotions, but expressing, naming, and understanding emotions is still difficult for children and teens. Yet it’s critical for understanding their emotional responses, empathizing, and building connections with peers.
Myint recommends labeling your child’s feelings when they’re young — for example, saying, “You’re frustrated.”
When kids are slightly older, don’t ask them how they’re feeling, Harlow says. Instead, name a range of feelings they might be experiencing, and see what resonates with them. Once your child is able to identify when they’re feeling nervous, angry, excited, jealous, or other big feelings, they’ll be better able to respond to those emotions, Harlow says.
Model healthy behaviors for your children
The most impactful way to show your kids the importance of prioritizing mental and emotional health is by modeling it for them, Harlow says. So, make sure that you’re eating well, moving, and sleeping enough. When you feel frustrated or overwhelmed, you can name that. Afterward, show your children how you cope with that feeling in an appropriate way.
“Parents can choose specific skills and habits to teach to their kids, such as deep breathing or mindfulness, and then apply them in real life,” Harlow said. “I’ve had tons of experience demonstrating calm breathing while driving with my kids in the car.”
Regular communication is a healthy habit itself and also a great way to reinforce the other changes you’re making, Harlow says. This is especially important with tweens and teens or if you feel like you don’t quite understand the modern world your children are living in.
“Kids are growing up in a profoundly dynamic environment, but having close, open relationships with caregivers can be a great way to support well-being,” Harlow said.
Reach out for help
Parents can work with friends, family members, teachers, administrators, mental health providers, and others in the community to support their children’s mental health, Myint says. Especially if you or your child are struggling, pulling in a support system can make it easier to stay healthy.
“It takes a village,” Myint said.
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