Returning to school after a long break can be difficult at the best of times. For some, school is essentially an unpaid, full-time job where they have very little personal freedom and autonomy. Heavily micromanaged jobs are associated with high levels of stress in adults and this is no different for young people . Coupled with a long, enforced absence from school, a global pandemic, and extra restrictions, it is understandable that young people might struggle to return to school. If you are a parent to a child or teenager, here are three strategies you can employ to support their mental health during this stressful transition:
Be aware of changes in your child
Most likely, no one knows your child as well as you do. For example, you know whether they are prone to irritability after school, or whether this is a new behaviour triggered by the pandemic. All children are different and display their emotions to different degrees. Some common signs of mental health difficulties include increased sensitivity, anxiety, changes to sleeping or eating habits, tearfulness, negative thoughts, or unexplained physical complaints such as headaches or stomach aches . If you are worried or unsure, contact your doctor or a mental health professional to clarify what are normal and manageable responses. They can help identify which behaviours suggest they may need further evaluation or support.
Engage in open, respectful, and regular conversations about their feelings.
Regularly ask your child about how they are feeling . It can be particularly difficult to get teenagers to share their feelings, but it is vital that you consistently make the effort. You can try sharing a few minor concerns you have yourself, such as having to work with an annoying co-worker again or difficulties reading the emotions of others wearing masks. This can prevent conversations from feeling one-sided. It will also help empower your child by showing you care about their view and demonstrate that it is fine and normal to have worries.
It is also important not to trivialise or dismiss their concerns. Your automatic response to minor issues may be that your own situation is harder, they are not really struggling or that they are complaining over nothing. Keep these types of thoughts to yourself. You are entitled to your opinion but responding in this way can result in them feeling as though they haven’t been heard or understood. It could prevent them from opening up to you in the future. Sometimes it is easy to forget that young people have had less time to develop resilience and healthy coping mechanisms to deal with difficult situations and sudden change. Listen to them without interrupting, paraphrase what they said back to you and let them correct you until they feel you have understood them. Tell them it is completely fine to struggle, everyone does at times and that they can come to you with any emotional difficulties, whether seemingly trivial or otherwise.
Lead by example
Demonstrate how you manage your emotions. Something as simple as announcing you’ve had a stressful day so you are going to have a long bath, a jog, or however you (healthily) manage these emotions can help your child to focus on solutions rather than a force they are powerless to. Children learn through observation; if you respond inappropriately to a difficult situation or emotion your child may also adopt similar behaviours in the future.
Young people benefit from a calm, open environment with regular structure, especially in these uncertain times where it is easy to feel overwhelmed by daily life. Build a schedule that fits in time for unstructured play, mealtimes, homework, and bedtime, so they can form healthy habits and know what to expect from their day [3/4].
If you believe your child is struggling, the first step is to contact your GP and make them an appointment. Young Minds also have a dedicated phone line for parents (0808 802 5544). Dorset Mind Your Head also offers many mental health resources, services, and education for young people with mental health difficulties in Dorset – and their parents. Discover more at dorsetmindyourhead.co.uk.
Big thanks to Lucy for writing this blog.