The beginning of school can feel like a sunny day…right before a tornado touches down. But with a bit of storm preparation, this school year can be different — especially when we start with a focus on mental health. Teaching your children to evaluate and prioritize their mental health can lead to positive changes in their relationships with you, their peers and school overall.
While a 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report reveals that anxiety and depression in children and teens soared during the early years of the pandemic, small steps to help young people understand and manage their emotional and mental well-being have far-reaching potential.
This year, up your game in keeping your children healthy and connected.
Schedule one-on-one time with each child
People of all ages want to be seen and heard, plain and simple. Working with the chaos of work and life, parents can schedule as little as 30 minutes weekly with each child to strengthen connections. Integral to this time is putting phones away and resisting the urge to multitask.
Jasmin McGregor, a licensed clinical social worker who works as a psychiatric social worker for the Los Angeles Unified School District, confirms that children crave recognition. “There’s a lot of power in validating children,” says McGregor, who also has a private practice in Los Angeles. “A lot of times, children don’t feel validated.”
One way to help each child feel validated is to give “complete attention to one child at a time, [which] is a treasure,” says Mary Cook, who works with families as a certified addiction counselor in Lomita. “It helps the child pay more attention to themselves.”
While you can do a specific activity together, hanging out is good enough. Spending time “doing nothing” does a lot of somethings. “Ask them what they like, and why they like it,” Cook suggests. “Asking preferences lets the child learn what is nurturing and helpful for them.”
These deep dives give parents a chance to ask more about the child’s thoughts, giving them a better framework if any mental health issues emerge later.
Upgrade your daily check-ins
We’ve all hit the “fine” wall: Their day was “fine.” Lunch was “fine.” The fire drill was “fine.” Even worse is asking, “What did you learn today?” and hearing “Nothing.” Hitting these conversation walls deflates kids and parents alike.
There is hope, however: We can alter our daily summary by changing the question we use to open our discussions with our kids.
“I’ve learned to say, ‘What did you practice at school today?’” says Edith Grant, a mother of two daughters, 9 and 12, in Los Angeles.
Caregivers can also ask: “What did you feel today?” This open-ended question allows kids the freedom to report on their emotions with minimal pressure. For younger children, a feelings chart posted in a high-traffic part of the house can be helpful. This can spark interest in their own emotions and build self-regulation skills they’ll take into adulthood.
Don’t worry if they are puzzled or try to resurrect “fine” initially. Help them expand their check-ins by giving your own. Being careful not to unload work gripes or personal stresses, try something like “I was excited to wear my new shoes in the morning, then I was confused after a meeting, and now I’m a little tired and happy to see you.” Looking at your own emotional inventory serves a twofold purpose: You keep track of what you and your child’s feelings are and your child learns that it’s safe to talk about emotions.
“I’m constantly asking them how they’re feeling and asking why they think they’re feeling that way,” Grant adds. “I check in with myself, too, and ask, ‘Am I really mad at this?’”
“Children will internalize the example,” Cook says. Demonstrating that it’s normal to feel multiple or conflicting emotions normalizes theirs and makes them better at understanding what multiple emotions feel like in their body. “It helps the child to know themselves better, [to know] that they’ll continue to learn and grow.”
Talking through emotions without judgment increases the likelihood kids will come to you if they have troubling or worrying emotions they don’t know how to handle alone.
Fall is a good time to see who is accepting new clients, and while many therapists returned to in-office visits, many also continue to have video-chat sessions.
Both McGregor and Cook report that sudden shifts in demeanor can indicate a mental health issue. McGregor advises parents and caregivers to look for “abrupt changes in behavior, social isolation. Especially for Black and Brown children, anxiety can look like irritability.”
“If you’ve already built a good relationship with the child,” Cook says, “you go to them and say, ‘I’ve noticed some changes since last month. We could talk about it if you’re ready. And if you’re not, just know that I know something happened, and I’m here for you.’”
Children can participate in choosing a therapist. They may have friends in therapy that speak highly of certain therapy types (talk or art therapy) and can be motivated to find a therapist that does similar work.
Finding a therapist with similarly lived experience can be paramount. “If they can see someone they identify with in any way,” McGregor says, “they’re more likely to be open and actively engage in therapy.” Gender, ethnic background and other similarities to the child can help them feel safe.
While therapy is great, don’t count on it to fix everything overnight.
“I noticed parents assumed I was going to ‘fix’ their child,” McGregor says. “One, they aren’t broken. And two, I’ve given them tools and skills so they can manage whatever symptoms and behaviors are happening.”
If your own daily check-ins are showing signs of anxiety, depression and exhaustion, consider your own therapy appointment. Cook says the best way to parent “is by healing any problems you had by being raised by your parents or any trauma you’ve suffered in childhood by building your own emotional maturity, healing and resilience.”
Brave learning an emerging skill
By “emerging,” I frankly mean something you are not good at. This could be dancing tutorials on YouTube, drawing classes, juggling…anything that’s a new skill. Adults try to avoid situations where they may look incompetent or silly, but kids often face new challenges and look to their caregivers to gauge how to handle them. When adults participating in a new skill show bravery and resilience, kids learn they can, too.
The opposite is already true, Cook warns. Some adults don’t want to try new hobbies or give up a sport if they don’t immediately catch on. “If parents see their child doing something they don’t like, it’s important to ask: ‘Do I model that for them?’” Modeling perseverance and taking yourself less seriously shows children mistakes are unavoidable.
“The goal is not to make mistakes,” Grant says, “but the reality is that’s how we learn. We’re human, we’re going to make mistakes. It’s OK to make mistakes.”
Learning a new skill with your child evens the playing field — you’ll both be beginners. And that can be critical to building children’s internal reasoning. Cook says: “The first question we can ask is ‘What can I learn from this?’ ‘How can I grow from this?’”
Your effort to manage negative self-talk can boost your mood, too. Reframing “I’m terrible at this” to “I’m learning and learning takes effort and time” will be pure magic when you hear your children repeat it.
Create clear boundaries…together
We can retire the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do.” Children of all ages function better with clear, mutual boundaries. Instead of trying to set rules, talk as a family about the best way to solve a problem together. If leaving soccer practice drags on, let everyone weigh in: “How do we feel when it takes forever? How could each of us work to make it faster?”
Phones and social media are another area ripe for boundary discussions.
Grant shares her children’s screen schedule: “They can watch TV Monday to Friday, and use devices Friday to Sunday.”
Every family will land on different answers, and McGregor recommends adults taking an honest look at their own habits. “It’s important to model that healthy relationship with your phone. There’s nothing like going to dinner and everyone’s on their phones.”
Opportunities to meet anxiety, depression and negative self-talk arise at every age. While children in elementary school are learning to make friends, middle schoolers are exploring their identity and how they relate to society. High schoolers deal with the impending pressures of the adult world along with navigating friendships, romance and school. Through it all, family and caregivers are the single best model to teach honesty and resilience.
This school year, connect with your children and don’t be afraid to recruit outside help. “If you’re seeing some signs that your child may benefit from therapy,” says McGregor, “don’t allow the stigma to keep them from getting the help they need because that can be life or death.”
If you need help finding a therapist, one resource to help you launch your search is psychologytoday.com.
Shelley Gaske is a dog mom and writes about mental health across the lifespan.