The key: focus on healing.
Between March and May of this year, the number of children visiting the emergency room for mental health issues rose by more than 30%.
We know the past year and a half took a toll on our kids’ mental health and development. From isolation to uncertainty, we have yet to understand the full impact of this crisis on our children. But there’s hope. Programs are showing promising results in bolstering social-emotional learning, combatting summer learning loss, and helping kids to connect and process what’s happened. To that end, here are four things you can focus on to support your kid’s mental health as you go back to work and they head back to the classroom.
Keep the channels of communication clear
Life gets busy but making sure your child feels comfortable coming to you with whatever they’re going through should be priority number one. Whether it’s trouble with math to early signs of a mental health issue, keeping the lines of communication open is crucial to supporting their healthy progress forward. This will also help you understand what they’re going through and strike a healthy balance of being there and letting them learn to process on their own. Moreover, it’s important to validate their feelings – no matter what they’re going through.
Balance routine and novelty
Routine will be crucial in making sure your kids feel in control as they return to an uncertain world. Try creating a big calendar in the kitchen where everyone can see what’s going on. Make sure to schedule regular moments of connection throughout the week – like dinner together every night or reading a story before bed. When your kids know they can count on this, it can help them deal with the anxiety of external uncertainty.
It’s also important to break up the consistency with unique outings and trips that everyone can look forward to. Not only will this encourage the family to spend time together, it’s also a great opportunity to introduce your kids to different things like outdoor activities, art projects or volunteering. Bonus points for activities that get you active to boost endorphins and help everyone release tensions and process their stress better.
Quality time is the name of the game
The importance of spending quality time together cannot be overstated. Going from being together all the time to being apart for most of the week can be a tremendous stressor for kids. But it’s easily mitigated by ensuring they can count on you to be fully present with them consistently throughout the day. From stretching together when you get home to having a dance party before dinner, little moments of togetherness strung together throughout the week will help to ground and soothe your kids. More than anything, it will create a container where you kids feel safe, loved, and comfortable sharing whatever’s going on. This will be critical for the next part.
Address mental health concerns right away
This will be one of the most critical parts of ensuring your kid gets back up to speed. As Ian Lang, the CEO of the Brookline Center for Community Health noted in the Boston Globe. “We are at an inflection point. We know for a fact that one of the primary drivers of absenteeism in schools is mental illness. And we know that high absenteeism leads to poorer outcomes.”
This is particularly acute as it applies to negative behavior. If your kids are acting out, ask yourself why, instead of skipping straight to the consequences. This is an approach we should be taking at schools as well. As psychiatrist Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite recently advocated,
“I’m really asking schools not to implement suspensions or detentions immediately and to really take a more trauma-sensitive lens. Instead of focusing on the behavior, disciplining them, sending them out of school, leading to more disruption in education, let’s focus on what’s behind that behavior. Where is this pain coming from? What was the catalyst for this child to act out? What’s happened at home that may lead this child to misbehave?”
This has been an unprecedented year for all of us and everyone copes differently – especially children. Addressing these issues starts at home and bringing a trauma-sensitive lens of compassion and understanding will be key as we begin to move forward together.
As Neema Avashia, an 18-year Boston Public School teacher wrote recently for WBUR, “our young people need us to see that this is the time for healing. And our schools need permission to prioritize that healing, rather than normalcy.“