iStockPhoto/monkeybusinessimages
Source: iStockPhoto/monkeybusinessimages

With summer flying by and many school start dates approaching, kids will be back to class in a flash. While many kids find summer vacation too short, resisting going back to school schedules, homework, and rules, others don’t mind returning to a place where they hope to enjoy friendships and activities. 

But unfortunately for today’s kids, there are many legitimate and significant worries about another school year starting. I recently met with a group of middle-schoolers, who, despite having supportive, functional upper middle class families and a good school district, had a list of worries that surprised and saddened me. What could these 13-year-olds possibly be worried about? Here are some of the things they told me about:

  • Bullying: Will they get bullied or see other kids get bullied, including cyberbullying via social media?
  • Violence: Will they get hurt physically or sexually, or see others get hurt?
  • Grade pressures: how are they going to learn all the stuff they’ll be expected to and get those A grades? 
  • Social pressures: Will they make friends, be popular, and be accepted?
  • Sports pressures: Will they be good enough to make the team? How will they deal with humiliation if they don’t perform well enough?
  • Sexual pressures: Will they be pressured to date, and will they look “hot” or sexy? 

And these were concerns that privileged kids expressed. Imagine the additional stresses of those who have to worry about whether they’ll get any lunch, especially if they came to school hungry because they didn’t get fed at home. Imagine coming to school after being traumatized by a dangerous, street journey to get there, or being abused or witnessing domestic violence at home. All these make it harder to learn, behave, and feel connected in a school’s culture. 

High-level stress is linked to mental illness in children, which increases the risk of self-harm, including suicide

One out of five children in the US are diagnosed with a seriously debilitating mental health problem and many more suffer from undiagnosed depression and anxiety. Suicide rates are still rising: It’s the second leading cause of death in 15- to 24-year-olds and the third in 10- to 14-year-olds. Shockingly, 18% of high school students report seriously considering killing themselves.

Learning to cope with stress well promotes mental health. Stress relievers for kids of all ages include support from parents and other adults, predictability of environment and expectations, and time and sleep management

To reduce stress and boost mental health before school starts, try having a back-to-school family meeting when there are no media distractions like phones or TV. Start with routine stuff like when or where you’ll get school supplies. Plan and set schedules for meals, media use, travel to and from school and school activities, homework, chores, and lights-out time. Write plans down and put them on the fridge, because as an old saying goes, all good plans forgotten (or not followed) go to waste. 

After deciding routines, bring up your own concerns about your kids’ well-being and safety. Because bullying is a top worry of children and parents today, include a statement giving your kids an opening to talk to you about it then or in the future. Here’s an example of what you could say: “I want you to know that bullying happens a lot and it’s never OK or the victim’s fault. I want to know if it happens to you or if you see it happen, because you’re just a kid and may need help to stop it. We can make a plan together.” By the way, bystander witnesses suffer many of the same bad outcomes that victims do. Ask your kids to share their bullying knowledge and praise them for talking about it. (For helpful information, see stopbullying.gov or other resources listed on WarningSignsforParents.com). 

Then discuss other worries your kids bring up, taking care not to tease about or belittle their opinions or concerns, no matter how silly they may seem. Further discuss issues one-on-one until your child seems to feel better about it, getting outside counseling or advice and revisiting the topic again as needed.

If your kids don’t voluntarily share issues, ask them individually how they’re feeling about school starting. Because teens often shut down when questioned, try phrasing things as statements instead: “I’m guessing it’ll be cool to see your friends more often again, but that there’s also stuff you might not be looking forward to.” Then wait for a response. 

If you don’t get much of a response, or get one that doesn’t reassure you, talk again privately without the other kids around. Say, “So I wanted to touch base again about your thoughts on school starting. A lot of kids feel many pressures and worries today and I’m wondering what’s on your mind.” 

It’s our experience that many parents resist asking their kids about concerns due to fear of not knowing what to say when kids share problems. But you don’t have to know exactly what to say, or how to solve those problems. The most important thing is to listen, show interest and concern, and convey that you understand how hard it is for kids to grow up today with all the pressures and fears they face.

You want them to come to you when wondering about something or feeling badly so you can try to help—because you care. You won’t judge, but will just listen, or try to give advice or support them in other ways. It helps to say things starting with the words “I think” and “I feel”:  “I think you might feel better if…” and “I feel worried when you…” instead of “You’ve messed up before…” or “You shouldn’t…” or “That’s not how to think about that.”

Tell them you know that many kids today feel anxious or unhappy about what’s happening in the world, at school, or to themselves or other people. You could even show them the above bullet point list of concerns and talk through any that ring a bell with them. Say you know that many kids today feel really down (or depressed) and even think about hurting themselves or others, and that you always want them to come to you if they feel this way because things can always get better. 

iStockPhoto/tommaso79
Source: iStockPhoto/tommaso79

Get counseling for a child who may be chronically depressed, anxious, or withdrawn, or whose behavior interferes with relationships or school progress. But expressing a plan for suicide and having what's needed to accomplish it is an emergent warning sign of needing immediate psychological evaluation at an inpatient facility—these kids, no matter how young, must not be left alone until evaluated, and access to all methods of self-harm must be removed. 

Kids have a fundamental need to feel like they belong, in their families, schools, and in society. You can be the foundation for this sense of belonging by being their nonjudgmental rock of support, no matter their personalities or how they perform in school and activities. 

Helping children believe they are valued for being yours essentially places their mental health first, focusing more on their emotional development and support than on their performance. A good relationship will help them come to you with problems voluntarily (without you having to ask, which is awesome). Unplug and have fun together with frequent little chats about silly nothings, which can blossom spontaneously into support sessions when kids bring up worries. 

Although it’s usually best to let older kids try to solve peer social and school-related problems themselves (using your advice as needed), there are some big exceptions: bullying (including by siblings), substance use, violence, inadequate academic progress, suspension, worrisome social media use, and early dating (we, along with many experts, consider this to be prior to age 16) are some issues that require parental intervention for safe, good outcomes. 

Now some of you may be wondering how to motivate your kids to do as well as they're able to in school without stressing them out too much about grades. Good question! We suggest talking about how good grades widen career choices, allowing them to pick from jobs they’ll enjoy while earning good wages. Emphasize positive feelings that come from doing well, and help them discover effective study habits and ways to learn that lead to good-enough grades, getting outside help as needed. Set rules on study time and turning in homework (again, predictability is good), and reinforce these with consequences that your kids care most about. Many academically able kids do poorly in school because they don’t consistently turn in work.

But if your child feels avoided, belittled, humiliated, or rejected because you find his or her school, sports, or other activity performance inadequate, it’s a warning sign of trouble. Your child's mental health may suffer and your relationship may erode, making your child less likely to come to you with problems. 

Parents who balance their support and control have kids who do best. Using a good mix of mental health and educational support along with schedule and activity control will promote academic and social success and help you find that sweet-spot balance. 

The mental health check-in described here helps you open the door to conversations, and makes it clear that you care and are there for them during this challenging era for childhood. Your positive, supportive involvement will boost your kids’ mental health and resilience to adversity as they begin another school year. Believing you have their backs, they’ll enjoy an easier road to happy, successful adulthood. 
 

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