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By Theresa Nguyen, MHA Vice President of Policy and Programs

Most children love summers. But for children with mental health problems, the summer time doesn’t just signal fun in the sun. For these children, summer time is a time of emotional and physical relief. Which is why going back to school is so hard.

Asking children with mental health issues to think during school is like asking them to run when they just finished a marathon. With mental illness, the brain is on overdrive all the time. So when it is time to think about other things – like tests, homework, being called on in class, or reading through text – the brain has little to no resources left to do that.

Because children with mental health concerns recognize that their brains aren’t working normally, and because they don’t know what to do next, the pressure of performing during school becomes incredibly stressful.

For many parents who support children with mental illness, the struggle with stomach aches, increased irritation, school avoidance, and even increased voices or visions that aren’t there (earliest signs of psychosis) are all too real and cyclical.

So, what can you do to make the transition back to school easier? Here are some tips to get you started.

Don’t let back to school sneak up on you

It’s normal to want to avoid the issue or to get caught up in the business of life. But, if you can take small steps to just start talking about it, it might help ease it the process overall. Waiting until you’re days before the school year begins means conflict is relegated to a shorter time, but also could mean even higher anxiety and conflict.

Pay attention to sleep

All children (and adults) need sleep to be healthy. For children and youth who struggle with mood changes or anxiety, the disruption in sleep might look like:

  • having low energy despite sleeping all the time,
  • having high energy and irritation despite not having enough sleep, or
  • day/night reversal where they want to sleep all day and stay up all night.

Sleep problems are both a symptom of mental illnesses and are factors that exacerbate mental health problems. When back to school season comes around the corner, it isn’t uncommon for children with mental health problems to struggle with sleep again. Pay close attention to changes in sleeping patterns. The earlier you flag the issue, the earlier you can address it.

Ask about worries

When worries kick up as summer ends, many children will exhibit symptoms they had during the school year. This includes agitation, stomach pains, and avoidance.

To battle worries, we have to talk about them. Talking about problems start with parents. Create a habit of discussing concerns in meaningful ways. This means asking open-ended questions and not avoiding the conversation ourselves.

What worries you about starting school again? What stressed you out about school last year?

Remind children that it’s important to talk about it because waiting and not dealing with it is so much worse. Listen to your children by reflecting what they say. Tell them it’s ok to feel those ways.

Develop and practice strategies

Although it’s tempting to give advice, the best way to find strategies is to empower your child to find solutions. Ask them questions like, "What do you think will help that problem?" and "Did you do something that worked before?"

If your child comes up with the idea themselves, they’re more likely to actually do the task. If they can’t come up with ideas, it’s ok to give suggestions, but don’t dive into details about how they might do it.

Some strategies might include finding a bedtime ritual (they identify the elements of the ritual), singing a song in their head (like counting sheep) while laying your head to rest – (but they pick the song), “grounding” techniques, or our PATH to Calm worksheet (Pause, Acknowledge, Think, Help) that you can download from last year’s Back to School toolkit.

Back to school is about preparation…Don’t forget to prepare for mental strength and resiliency.

On that note – be on the lookout for MHA’s 2018 Back to School toolkit coming at the end of August. Materials will address trauma and how it can bring about symptoms of mental health problems in children and teens.