If you ask a child what they think of when it comes to summer, you’ll probably get responses like, “vacation,” “sleeping in,” “ice cream,” “being with friends,” “swimming pools,” and especially, “no school!” For a child contending with a mental illness, “no school” may also mean a brief reprieve from anxiety, stress, and other challenges that school brings.
Children may already be exhibiting symptoms of mental illness before entering school, but the stress, anxiety, and relational challenges schools create may contribute to or intensify those symptoms. As summer is ending, and a new school year draws near, there are a couple of things the family of a child with a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder can take to prepare for the coming school year.
In her Psychology Today article, Tamar Chansky, PhD, discusses how parents can address anxiety in children. Anxiety is a common experience among most children and doesn’t indicate a mental illness, so her suggestions are applicable to all kids. Dr. Chansky says that “…worry is fueled by an active imagination, so to “keep it real” help your child get some data: visit the school, play in the playground, peek into the classroom or even help to decorate the bulletin boards with the teacher if you have a chance. Do some “dress rehearsals” of the new morning routine at home, so your child sees how it will work. Practice goodbye routines; for fun and a little added flexibility, switch off roles. Give your child the chance to be the parent, not only will they feel more confident seeing what it’s like to be in charge, but you may learn some good lines from your child for how to say a clean-break goodbye.”
For a child struggling with depression, the transition back to school may have additional challenges. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that “Only now, in the past two decades has depression in children been taken very seriously. The depressed child may pretend to be sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent, or worry that the parent may die. Older children may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative, grouchy, and feel misunderstood.” The NIMH offers a series of resources here to help parents learn more about how to care for a child with depression.
A visit to the pediatrician for a pre-school physical should also include a mental health check. Many pediatricians utilize a mental health checklist from the American Medical Association to identify possible mental illnesses. In addition, many school districts have programs and support groups for families of children with mental illness. Check with the administrative office in your child’s school. There may also be a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) organization in your area that can provide assistance.
Do your homework and help provide your child with a (mentally) healthy start to the upcoming school year.