Should Kids Be Allowed to Take Mental Health Days?
Here's what grown-ups need to know about mental health days for kids.
Posted Nov 21, 2017
Last summer, the story about a CEO who encouraged employees to take mental health days went viral. It led to numerous media stories about the importance of taking care of your mental health — including taking a mental health day when you need one.
But what about kids? Should you let your child take a mental health day from school? The answer isn't a simple yes or no.
In my 15 years as a psychotherapist, I've encouraged a few parents to let their kids take an occasional mental health day from school. But I've also had to convince many other parents that their children's mental health days were doing more harm than good.
How to Know If Your Child Needs a Mental Health Day
You wouldn’t question keeping your child home from school if she had the flu. But it’s harder to recognize when your child needs to stay home for mental health reasons.
It’s important for kids to power through some discomfort, like going to school even when they’re afraid of giving a presentation, or when they don’t have their math homework done. There’s a lot of value in showing them that they’re stronger than they think.
But when they’re feeling so bad that they’re struggling to function, and going to school is likely to make it worse, a mental health day might be just what the doctor ordered.
Letting kids take the occasional mental health day — maybe once or twice a year — could reinforce to them that it’s vital to take care of their minds as well as their bodies. It can also be a great opportunity to help them sharpen their emotional skills and build the mental muscle they need to stay strong.
How to Make a Mental Health Day Helpful
If you decide to let your child take a day off from school for a little emotional recuperation, make the most of her time off. Turn the day into an opportunity to help your child for the long haul, not just something that will make her feel better for 24 hours.
A good way to spend a mental health day is to use the time to:
- Solve a problem. If your child is stressed out by a specific problem, like being bullied on the playground, or if he’s fallen so far behind in one of his classes it looks like he won’t be able to pass, you might be able to turn a mental health day into a problem-solving opportunity. Schedule a meeting with the school, sit down and problem-solve with your child, or meet with people who can help.
- Practice self-care. If your child is exhausted, overworked, or rundown, an occasional day off may help him charge his batteries. It could be an opportunity to jumpstart healthier habits, like going to sleep earlier, eating nutritious food, and getting plenty of exercise.
- See a professional. If your child is struggling to attend school, seek professional help. Schedule an appointment with your pediatrician to talk about your child’s mental health needs. A physician may refer you to a mental health professional if it’s warranted.
Avoid These Activities on a Mental Health Day
Using a mental health day to escape reality or avoid problems, however, could actually do more harm than good. After all, the problems will still be there tomorrow, and going back to school will be even more challenging if the issues are left unaddressed.
Avoid these activities on a mental health day:
- Binge-watching TV. You might think a relaxing day in front of the TV or a chance to unwind playing video games will help. But research shows binge-watching TV is bad for mental health. A 2015 study published in International Communications Association found that binge-watching TV increases feelings of loneliness and depression.
- Sleeping all day. Staying in bed or being inactive all day could worsen your child’s symptoms. Even if your child is sleep-deprived, don’t let her sleep too much. You’ll disrupt her sleep cycle, and it will be even more difficult for her to get back on track.
- Rewarding your child for staying home. While staying home shouldn’t be a punishment, you also don’t want your child to think she’s skipping school to have fun. Resist the temptation to take your child out for lunch or to spend the day at the playground when she’s having a rough time. Doing so could send the wrong message.
Make Mental Strength Building a Priority
If your child needs more than the occasional mental health day, it could be a sign that he needs better coping skills, more guidance, and professional assistance to help him feel better.
You can’t prevent all mental health problems, just like you can’t always prevent physical illness. But you can take steps to help your child build the mental strength she needs to stay as emotionally fit as possible.