It’s that time of the year again that parents both love and dread. As we begin the back-to-school season, it’s important to pay attention to your child’s mental health just as much as their physical health. As a parent of three, I’ve seen firsthand how important it is to monitor your family’s mental health during this transition. Cyberbullying, suicidality and self-harm are just some of the topics that cause parents concern as the school year begins, and substance use can be connected to all of these.
So what are some things that you should know about back to school and mental health? Psych Hub recommends you be aware of these five things:
Understand that transitions can be difficult at any age.
Some youth thrive in the face of change but for others, it can be a tricky situation to navigate. Watch for signs of distress in your youth as they transition to a new grade, sport or group of friends. You can help them manage the stress by monitoring mood changes, sleep patterns and watching for signs of isolation. Especially since substance use can be an outlet for many kids, you can encourage healthy coping mechanisms such as maintaining a balanced schedule that includes exercise, nutritious meals and enough sleep, helping them stay connected to positive social supports, and modeling healthy ways to manage stress.
Know the signs of common mental health conditions.
The most common mental health conditions in youth are anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression. If you are concerned that your child is experiencing a mental health disorder, it’s helpful to talk it over with a licensed provider and get an evaluation. General symptoms to be aware of include poor school performance or changes in school performance, persistent boredom, frequent physical ailments such as headaches, stomachaches, sleep issues, signs of regression like bed wetting, and even aggressive behaviors. Mental Health America’s Back-to-School Toolkit has a lot of great information about how to recognize common symptoms around anxiety, depression and more. You can also learn more about the connection between mental health and substance use through the Guide to Co-Occurring Disorders developed in collaboration with Child Mind Institute.
Learn how to start a conversation around mental health.
Understanding how to talk about mental health — just like with talking about substance use — is likely one of the most important things you will do as a parent. When beginning these conversations, it is important to speak from a place of empathy and express care. It is best not to avoid language associated with a particular disorder but instead to use general language such as “I am worried about you”, “I am here for you”, or “Can we talk about what is going on with you?’ You want your child to know that you are there for them every step of the way. Gentle approaches can go a long way in building trust with your child, so that they are more willing to open up about sensitive issues.
Understand bullying and how you can help.
Bullying can take many forms and can involve a lot of different actions. It is important to know that bullying behaviors exist on a continuum – from inappropriate jokes and teasing, all the way up to physical violence. It is common for youth to feel shame if they are being bullied and consequently may not always share with you what is going on. This is why it is more important than ever to keep open lines of communication with your child. Work with your child on a proactive plan. This plan can include who will do what to resolve the situation based on the severity of the bullying. It’s important to not promise to keep the bullying a secret, though – your child’s safety is at risk and adult intervention by a parent or teacher is almost always needed.
To learn more about how to deal with bullies and develop a healthy relationship between a parent a teacher, check out PsychCentral’s Back to School Mental Health Guide. Bullying can have long-term psychological and psycho-social impact on both the offender and the victim, which is why early intervention is so important. When it comes to the mental health of victims, there is a clear link between bullying and depression, and bullying and substance use. Offenders are also at increased risk of substance use and of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system.
There are resources out there to help you navigate your child’s mental health and substance use.
It can be difficult, even for adults, to accept that our mental health is just as important as our physical health, but help is available. Talking about mental health should be a normal part of everyday conversation – just as you might share that you have a common cold or allergies. A simple first step when it comes to stigma reduction is to educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of mental health. At Psych Hub, our online education library provides over 100 short, free videos on mental health, substance use, and suicide prevention with an entire library dedicated to youth topics.