The end of the year is approaching, which means we are already halfway through the school year. Holiday parties, special religious celebrations and services, snow days, and winter break are all here. While the holidays are meant to bring us joy, rest, and spiritual rejuvenation, all of these changes also can be disruptive or stressful for families with children. This may be especially true for families with children who have special needs due to a mental health diagnosis.
Maybe you’ve established a system that works well for your child but are worried about how the approaching changes might interrupt the system. Or maybe your family is still trying to figure out and understand what works best for your child with special needs. Either way, this article is meant to be a “check-in” and brief guide for parenting a child with a mental health diagnosis throughout the school year, with a special focus on getting through a hectic holiday season.
Let's Talk About Routines
Routines and consistency are important for all children — and helpful for adults too! But they are crucial for a child with a mental health diagnosis. Routines provide children with a sense of safety and predictability in the world. Chaos or unpredictability can set children up for experiencing worry and anxiety.
A child with a mental health diagnosis may wonder:
- “How do I know what to expect?”
- “What if something bad happens next?”
Or they may experience oppositional behavior:
- “I’m not sure what the rules or boundaries are, so I need to test them to find out.”
Keeping in mind that we can’t be 100 percent consistent all of the time, here are some general guidelines on ways to maintain consistency and routines throughout the school year and the holidays.
Try to Keep to a Similar Sleeping and Eating Schedule
Disrupting daily biological routines can lead to changes in mood, fatigue and irritability. And for children who struggle with mental health difficulties, changes in sleeping or eating can cause a worsening of symptoms. For example, for people with depression or bipolar disorder, these changes can trigger a depressive or manic episode.
I know it’s tempting to let kids stay up late and sleep in during their holiday break. But it’s just as important to stick to a consistent sleeping and eating schedule during the holidays as it is during a normal school week. So, during the holiday season, follow these important schedule guidelines:
- Stick to usual eating and sleeping times.
- If your child needs daily medication, keep the timing of delivery consistent for the medication to be most effective.
- If your family absolutely has to stay up late for holiday travel or a holiday party, that’s OK, but try to minimize these disruptions as much as possible.
- If there needs to be an overall shift during the holiday, try to keep it within one hour of the established routine.
What About School and Homework Routines?
Between school, afterschool activities, and homework routines, your child’s day is quite structured. Having a routine for homework and studying during the school year is essential for your child to establish helpful habits and cognitive skills, such as organization, prioritization, and time management.
Following these homework routines will help provide clear expectations for your child in a stable setting:
- Have a special place in the house (quiet, low levels of stimulation) designed for homework/studying.
- Set a time for homework each day.
- Provide your child with consistent positive encouragement for completing that day’s assigned homework task.
While most school-aged kids will have regular homework during the school year, they won’t have much, if any, homework over holiday breaks. Transitioning to a holiday break with very little structure can be dysregulating. Therefore, it is still helpful for children to have some type of structure to their day. During lots of travel or between stimulating holiday activities, try to create a regular “low-key” time of day where your child can engage in light activities, including:
- Learning-based gameplay.
This is especially important for children who struggle more with lack of structure, such as children with ADHD or those who are on the autism spectrum.
This “low-key” time may also be a good time for them to practice any skills, such as relaxation or emotion identification, that they learn in therapy.
Check in With Your Child
As the first half of the school year winds down, take some time to talk with your child about how they think the semester went:
- What subjects did they enjoy or struggle with?
- If your child has school accommodations, are they meeting your child’s needs?
- What are some fun things they do with friends?
- Any major social challenges?
- What do they feel most proud of this year?
Give them genuine praise for the hard work they have done this year, let them know how proud you are of them, and let them know that it’s OK if they are struggling in any area and that you can work together to help make it better.
Let Your Approach Evolve as Your Child Develops
I know — I just talked about the importance of consistency. But consistency doesn’t mean stagnancy. And while a child with a mental health diagnosis might need extra support, they will become more skilled and independent as they grow, just like all children. So when you check in with your child, do the following:
- Chat about whether they may be ready for more independence or flexibility in any area where they are doing well.
- Make sure all changes are developmentally appropriate for their age.
- Make small changes rather than big leaps.
- Be patient, and allow for an adjustment period.
Overall, let your child know that you are there to support them through all stages of their growth.
Vanessa Jacoby, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and licensed clinical psychologist with a child specialization in the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She is member of the STRONG STAR Multidisciplinary Research Consortium and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD, whose mission is to alleviate and prevent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other deployment related problems in active-duty service members and their families. In her work at STRONG STAR, Dr. Jacoby conducts prevention and supportive programs with military families with young children experiencing deployment.
The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.