As School Starts Again, Here’s How to Support Your Kids’ Mental Health

As fall approaches, the U.S. youth mental health crisis, while acknowledged by the government, has yet to show significant signs of improvement. For the third year in a row, the COVID pandemic will play a large role in the 2023-2024 back-to-school season, especially as hospitalizations are rising once again, per CDC data. Plus, it’s become impossible for anyone, including children, to escape the onslaught of relentlessly depressing headlines, whether it’s climate change or widespread gun violence – which, of course, includes school shootings.

COVID put a spotlight on kids’ mental health, and data tells us the pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on it. According to studies from the US Department of Health and Human Services, anxiety in kids from ages 3 to 17 increased by 29 percent from 2016 to 2020. Depression increased by 27 percent.

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Parents are all too aware of the problem. According to a 1000-person poll by Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 71 percent of parents believe the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health. Notably, 67 percent said they wished they’d been “more vigilant about their child’s mental health from the beginning.”

It’s not always easy to talk to your kids about mental health, but now more than ever, it’s crucial to do so — and you don’t have to go it alone. We spoke to experts about how to approach mental health conversations with sensitivity and openness, because the most important thing is to let your child know you’re there for them, no matter what they’re going through.

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Social Media and Remote Learning: A Few Issues Affecting Kids’ Mental Health

A huge factor that has contributed to kids’ mental health issues in recent years? An increased dependence on technology and social media, something the pandemic only exacerbated.

“People in generations before us have struggled,” says Leslie Carr, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and expert on how trauma, stress, culture, and digital technology impact the mind. “But young people today seem to be having a particularly hard time.”

Dr. Carr explains that this is a result of a combination of things. First, kids are being exposed, at a young age, to major life upheavals like a pandemic and school shootings. Second, “they’re absorbing it via the internet all the time.” Third, by spending so much of their time on the internet, children are lacking the positive reinforcements that help counteract devastating news stories. “Time in nature, time with friends, getting hugs, playing. There’s less of that when kids are on the internet all the time,” she says.

Even though schools have returned to in-person learning, children are still experiencing the aftereffects of remote learning, which can have a substantial effect on their mental health. “[Kids’] development has been impacted in these past two years,” says Jahanara Ullah, PhD, a child psychologist and an assistant director at the Montefiore School Health Program in the Bronx, New York, which provides coordinated primary and preventive healthcare (including mental health care) to 75 local public schools. “Now they find themselves back in school trying to adjust and shifting from social media, which might have been their only connection during the pandemic, to in-person interaction, and struggling to have healthy relationships.”

Dr. Ullah goes on to say that after nearly four years of living in a pandemic, some kids are still learning how to talk to people again. So as families prepare for the new school year, it continues to be important for parents and caregivers to know how to be their children’s mental health support system.

Do Listen, Don’t Always Problem-Solve

So, how can parents and caregivers open the lines of communication? “Get your kids talking,” says Dr. Carr, before emphasizing, “let your kid have their feelings.” Also, engage in a technique called active listening, where the focus is more on listening than problem-solving.

“It’s important to open up that discussion by letting your child know, ‘I’m here for you, I want to understand what’s going on with you,’” says Dr. Ullah. What can be the most challenging part of this experience for parents is the natural instinct to try to make the child feel better — think taking them for ice cream or a movie as a quick, temporary fix. Dr. Carr cautions against this practice, “because the feelings are not going to go away with the ice cream cone,” she says. “And what you’re going to communicate to your child is that it’s wrong to have feelings or that they shouldn’t talk to you about them.” As difficult as it may be, the best way parents can be there for their children is to have the ability to tolerate difficult emotions – in both themselves and in other people.

Dr. Ullah recommends two main strategies to parents when they want to engage in active listening. First, “being able to summarize — what has my child said to me just now? Do I fully understand it?” And second, taking a moment to ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say helpful? Will it address my child’s needs?” In short, make sure you, as the parent, are remaining mindful of your own feelings and reactions. That may also mean telling modeling your own self-care for the child. “If [the parent] needs to see a therapist or a counselor, they should let the child know,” says Dr. Ullah. “To break down those walls by example sets the tone so the child can talk to their parents and lets them know that it’s okay to ask for others for help too.”

Engage in Conversation

A common misstep among parents (myself included) is attempting to engage kids in conversation with a general, “How was your day?” This usually results in little more than, “It was good!” Dr. Ullah recommends “more focused and open-ended questions,” like “What was the best part of your day?” or “Can you give me a rundown of your schedule?” This encourages your child to share specific details. Marcella Kelson, a parenting expert who specializes in maternal mental health and developmental psychology, suggests playing the “What’s your rose, thorn, and bud?” game with kids at the dinner table. The “rose” is one positive aspect of the day, the “thorn” is one negative aspect, and the “bud” is something to look forward to.

Kelson recommends making these kinds of check-ins part of the family routine, whether it’s at dinnertime, bedtime, or even first thing in the morning. “I think it’s a good consistent practice at home because you don’t necessarily want the day [that] there’s really upsetting information to be the day that you ask how your child is doing,” she says. “Because it doesn’t set them up for openness or consistency in that communication.”

A little can go a long way toward helping children feel comfortable talking with their parents and caregivers, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day doing something that the child enjoys together. “Spending more time, positive time, taking interest in something that’s important to them, can help the child feel safe,” says Dr. Ullah.

Get Professional Help

If you’re noticing red flags in your child’s mental health — changes in behavior, mood, sleeping and eating habits, etc. — it may be time to enlist professional resources. A typical first stop on this journey is your pediatrician, but both Kelson and Dr. Carr emphasize the importance of involving school-based services as well. Even if your child’s school doesn’t have an in-house behavioral health program, the school guidance counselor is more likely have their finger on the pulse of therapy resources and solutions for accessing the care you and your child need.

“Regardless of where you get your services from, you want the school to support your child, and you’re going to still want the school to be your ally,” says Kelson.

There’s also the recently activated nationwide three-digit Lifeline, 988, which can direct parents to mental health resources via phone, text or chat. Whatever resources you reach out to, know that fostering open communication and actively listening to your child when they’re going through a tough mental health time can help them feel seen, heard, and cared for.

Before you go, check out the mental health apps we swear by for a little extra TLC for your brain: 


Launch Gallery: The Best & Most Affordable Mental Health Apps

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