Sunday, January 29, 2023

Advice for parents on student mental health days

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In recent years, some parents have gotten a new item to put in their parenting toolkits: mental health day at school. Since 2018more than a dozen states have passed or proposed bills that would allow school districts to treat missed days for mental health issues the same way they treat absences for physical health issues.

The question for parents will be deciding when and how to use the option.

Mental Health Days is a response to the mental health crisis among children, said Jill Cook, executive director of American Association of School Counselors. “Even before the pandemic, we knew anxiety was on the rise,” she said. “And we also know that the pandemic just made some of it worse for many students.”

“The trick,” Cook added, “will be to figure out if it’s really a need to rest and recharge as opposed to avoiding school or avoiding tests or something else that might be more important when a mental health day is not the answer.”

Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist in Rockville, Md., agrees that mental health days can encourage skipping school. “Life is full of discomfort and uncertainty, and we have to learn how to deal with it,” said Alvord, founder of Resistance Across Borders, a nonprofit group that aims to help young people build resilience. She recommends that mental health days be dedicated to that lesson, rather than being pulled away from whatever is upsetting the child.

What to do and not to do when your child won’t go to school

“If you have a sick child complaining that their ears hurt, you’re not going to say, ‘Okay, just stay home.’ You’re like, ‘We have to go to the pediatrician,'” Alvord said. Likewise, a mental health day doesn’t have to be “a day to stay in your room and play video games. There should be an action plan,” such as talking to a counselor or therapist, working on calming strategies, or challenging negative thinking with other scenarios that are more likely to occur.

How should parents decide?

Unfortunately, there is no thermometer that can tell you when a child is too stressed or anxious to go to school. Alvord said it’s about “watching them closely and listening to what they’re saying and talking to them as much as they’re willing.” Ask questions like, “What is making you think or feel like it would be beneficial to take a day off?” or, “Is there something urgent going on?”

Cook said parents will have to do some detective work to see if the child is facing a test or has not completed a project. “It’s really important that the parents and the young person can talk to each other and have these open and honest conversations when possible. And for parents to help students understand if it’s an avoidance tactic, then they might not be doing themselves a favor by taking it that day.

Nekeshia Hammond, a clinical psychologist in Brandon, Fla., said she believes that, in middle and high school, “a lot of kids can say, ‘You know what, I need a break.’ And I think we have to really respect that.” She is aware that some children will try to take advantage of mental health days – but noted that there have always been children who try to game the system.

“The most important thing we need to think about is making sure kids learn how to take care of themselves,” Hammond said.

“Our state of mind is directly related to how we do in school. So we don’t want to send a really desperate or really desperate kid if they can’t handle it,” Alvord said. “But you have to do something. It has to be proactive.”

Once you have a handle on what’s bothering a child or teen, work together on a coping plan. If a child is upset about a social interaction at school, the plan might be to go together to see the school counselor. If they were so anxious they couldn’t sleep the night before, consider letting them sleep for a few hours before picking them up late — mental health days don’t need to last all day, she noted. Alvord.

During a mental health day, Hammond said, “It’s really important to engage in calming activities, whatever that looks like” for your child. Teaching them about mindfulness can be helpful, as can helping them process some distressing experiences.

Should the kids eat what you serve or just what they want? Nor.

Parents can also introduce their children to mental health apps to help them regulate their emotions. Some suggestions are Three good things, Laughing mindAND Breathe2Relax.

Finally, parents should be aware that they may need to help their child “transition from this mental health day back into the academic environment,” Hammond said. For example, if a child has anxiety, a parent can work with him on positive visualizations of going back to school. Or, Alvord said, a parent can drive them to school and do some calming and reframing exercises with them in the parking lot.

A new approach to mental health

One benefit of the concept of mental health days is that it gets parents, teachers and children talking openly about the issue.

“It’s a really important statement for states to say, ‘Hey, we care about your mental health,'” said Hammond, who hopes all states eventually pass similar laws. “Because in my experience, some schools are so focused on academics that they completely forget that we need kids to have positive mental health to work and perform academically.”

She appreciates the current lack of emphasis on perfect attendance. “Missing a day or two of school isn’t necessarily going to have this dire academic impact when the goal is to make sure this child is emotionally safe and emotionally healthy.”

Parents should also model emotionally healthy behaviors for their children, Hammond said. “It’s okay to tell your kids, ‘I got really stressed, but here’s what I’m doing about it. I’m trying to take care of myself.’ “

In some cases, parents can share why they are taking a mental health day themselves. For example, after the loss of a loved one, a parent might say that instead of going to work, “they needed a day to grieve, be quiet and celebrate this person,” Alvord said. The important thing, she added, is to communicate that you are doing something about the issue and not just going to bed.

The concept of mental health days is “a really positive thing for kids to learn about so early,” Hammond said. “This is a skill that children need, not only in their childhood, obviously, but also in their adult years. We’re giving them a gift to teach them to take care of themselves.”

In fact, Hammond said she thinks parents should consider mental health days an option, even if they don’t live in a state that has passed legislation allowing them. “I’m a big advocate of doing what works for your child at the end of the day.”

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