Mental health challenges of back-to-school

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The return to school after a nice summer holiday is something that most adults probably remember from their own childhoods as unenjoyable, yet routine. The problem is that memories tend to be fickle, and we don’t always have room for gritty details. We likely experienced just as much anxiety, dread, and fatigue as today’s kids face during the return to school, but we either don’t remember, or we learned to pretend everything was fine because of a different era’s attitudes toward mental health.

As a trained mental health counsellor, I have seen the struggles of countless students in coping with school stress. If you have children, don’t be afraid to check in with them about their feelings regarding the return to school this time of year.

Perhaps the most common and obvious mental health issues that children and teens face during a return to school after a two month break is anxiety, particularly social anxiety. Humans are social creatures by nature, and the two month break can often artificially hinder children’s sociability and make them second guess their ability to return to the normal school routine of seeing and interacting with friends. If your child has anxiety about returning to school, the best thing to do is remind them that they can tackle the return to school one day at a time. It is likely that after a few days or a couple of weeks of school life, the anxiety will subside. One common mistake which applies to both adults and children who experience anxiety, is avoidance. Letting your child stay home from school even once due to anxiety is very rewarding (in a psychological sense) for your child. Pleasant outcomes lead to repeat behaviours – staying home from school due to anxiety causes a pleasant and instantaneous relief of anxiety, which your child will want again tomorrow. Staying home today may even cause more anxiety tomorrow as your child’s brain works toward gaining the “reward” of staying home again. This is not bad behaviour, it is basic psychology, and explains why avoiding anxiety-provoking situations is never the answer.

Speaking of “bad behaviour”, it is not uncommon for parents to notice increases in attitude problems, poor decision making, or even bad listening around the time students return to school. It is important to be forgiving. These behaviour changes are almost always temporary, and are quite understandable given the adjustment to sitting still, focusing, and following strict institutional rules after two months of play and relaxation. Remember that children must be on their best behaviour in school, which includes remembering rules, following routines, and engaging in schoolwork that is often less-than-entertaining. When your kids come home from school, particularly as they are adjusting to a new school year, and they give attitude or show poor listening, it may simply be because they are home. Home should be every child’s safe place, so take a bad attitude as a silver lining. Also remember that sleep schedules often change between summer and school, and a tired brain is simply less capable of making good choices. Behaviour changes that persist longer than expected after the start of the school year could be a sign of interpersonal issues at school – talking to your child is the best way to get to the bottom of this. A final note is that for children who don’t like school – of which there are many – the return to school may simply be depressing and stressful. There will always be value in teaching children the responsibility of doing things they don’t like, which includes attending school, but this doesn’t have to mean that the school year is the time when fun comes to an end. Remember to have family time during at least some evenings, allow your child to have alone time when needed, and make weekends both enjoyable and relaxing. When you care about your children’s mental health, it means that someday, they will thank you for the wonderful childhood you gave them.

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