As children head back to school this week, Danielle Sirianni Molnar says it’s important to ensure they have more than just the proper school supplies.
The Brock University Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies and Canada Research Chair in Adjustment and Well-Being in Children and Youth says the changes that come with returning to school can lead to varying outcomes for children’s mental health.
“For some kids, back to school impacts them in a positive way, as they enjoy school, its routines and seeing their friends and teachers,” she says. “However, for others adjusting to being back in school is difficult and can negatively impact their mental health, especially for children who may not feel comfortable with their peers, have difficulties meeting the school’s academic expectations or have pre-existing mental health problems such as anxiety or depression that can hamper the ability to adapt to significant changes in their lives.”
For children who find the return to school more challenging, Sirianni Molnar says there is a key strategy they can use to maintain their mental health during the school year.
“One important strategy kids can use is to create routines that work for them that include eating healthy meals at regular intervals throughout the day, maintaining a healthy and consistent sleep schedule and scheduling consistent times for extracurricular activities and homework,” she says. “Routines are important for all kids because it gives them a sense of security, but they are particularly helpful for kids who are experiencing anxiety because routines reduce uncertainty, which fuels anxiety.”
While children are encouraged to pay attention to their routines, Sirianni Molnar says parents also play a critical role in providing positive mental health support by looking for changes in their children’s behaviour for a sustained period of time, including alterations in eating, sleeping and physical activity levels, or if they are engaging less with friends, family or activities they were once passionate about.
“It is especially important to recognize if these changes are affecting their academics, relationships with family and friends or their participation in their extracurricular activities,” she says. “Parents should also be on the lookout for pronounced increases in irritability, sadness, worry or anger as these may be a signal that a child is struggling with their mental health.”
Along with identifying if their child is struggling, the second step parents can take is regular communication, though this can be uncomfortable at first, Sirianni Molnar says.
“One suggestion for parents is to try and lessen the directness of the conversation by bringing up the topic of mental health when engaged in another activity,” she says.
For example, rather than sitting down face to face and having a formal discussion at the table, it may make the child feel less self-conscious by talking while going out for a hike, doing a household chore like folding laundry or for young children, playing with toys.
“It is key that parents are approachable and ensure their children know that they are cared for and that they matter at all times,” she says. “Often, parents want to solve all of their children’s problems for them, but sometimes it is important for parents to simply listen and validate their children’s concerns.”
With these strategies in mind, Sirianni Molnar says a final step is for parents and kids to always seek additional help when it is needed.
“If parents have urgent concerns about their child’s mental health, they should reach out for professional help as soon as possible, such as local health-care providers or hospitals to ensure the safety of their children,” she says.