It’s late August. Interstate 95 in the Northeast is actually moving during morning and evening rush hours as workers ditch the daily commute for one last vacation of summer. Meanwhile, the stores are full of parents and their children shopping for new clothes and school supplies. Labor Day is late this year, but in another week or so millions of kids across the country will participate in the annual rite of fall known as “Back to School.”
What many people don’t know about this time of year is the surge in demand on mental health professionals who work with children and teens. I realized this last week when my wife took our daughter to see her psychiatrist for a medication adjustment. Why did I think it was just my own kid who was acting agitated of late and not able to sleep at night? Her doctor explained that many of her young patients experience similar signs of elevated stress this time of year.
For most kids, Back to School is a time of mixed emotions. The burden of having to conform to schedules, rules and work routines is weighed against the benefits of getting out of the house and back with friends, old and new. But for the child or adolescent with a mental health condition those mixed emotions can be so overwhelming that they literally make them sick. Even the prospect of being with their peers can be a source of stress and anxiety.
My own family has been through several challenging Back to School transitions and every time we learn something new. Here are five tips, based on personal experience, to help you get through this potentially stressful time of year:
- Prepare early. Whether shopping for supplies or packing a kid for boarding school or college, do not wait until the last week of summer to do these things. Back to School sales are really just a way to pack more consumers into stores, and there are bargains all year round on the Internet and most retail outlets.
- Take a home vacation. If you plan to take a trip in summer, do it early in the season. Save the last week for a relaxing stay at home and be sure to follow Tip #1 by not using that time for last minute preparations. Instead of a trip, plan for an easy day at the beach or lake, backyard cook-out with s’mores, or a movie matinee. Low-stress activities are key.
- Get back on school time. Or better yet, stay on a school-year schedule throughout the summer. There’s nothing worse for kids with mental health issues than disrupted sleep cycles. My daughter did a great job this summer of resisting the temptation to sleep in most mornings. As a result she is in much better shape for 7 AM wake-ups when she returns to school next week.
- Resolve treatment issues before school starts. If your child is feeling symptomatic, it’s important to get him in for treatment and possible medication changes before school starts. By the same token, the end of August is not a good time to change therapists. Your child needs a stable support system and plan in place before the transition back to school begins.
- Be proactive. Many kids with mental health concerns respond well to incentive plans provided the rules are clear and agreed on in advance. Creating a daily point system that recognizes and rewards desired behaviors is positive reinforcement. Offering a reward for her to go to school after she’s already refused is bribery. Working parents can be proactive by scheduling time off from work both before and after school begins, so they can be available to provide extra support during that tough first week of school.
My final advice to parents is to count your successes, not your failures. Raising a child or teen with mental health issues isn’t easy. If you can manage to accomplish 1 or 2 items on this list, that’s a big accomplishment for you and your child. Be sure to celebrate it!
Do you have a tip or story about Back to School transitions for your child or family member with mental health concerns? Please share it in our comments section.
If you would like help identifying a mental health professional in your area, contact one of our Resource Specialists.
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