The return to school is a challenging time for most families, but for kids with mental health struggles, the social and academic pressures can be especially difficult. Here are some ideas for a more balanced and supportive experience for yourself and your child.
Creating a predictable routine provides a sense of security for all children. In particular, it’s important to:
Maintain Consistency: Stick to regular times for meals, study hours, and bedtime.
Prepare the Night Before: Encourage your child to prepare each night for the following day. Set out clothes, review the next day’s schedule, and pack the needed school materials. Also prepare lunch for the next day if possible or decide before bedtime on what will be organised in the morning.
Incorporate Relaxation: Include some relaxation time after school. This could involve reading a book, watching a favourite show, listening to music, or engaging in a hobby or physical activity.
Recognise Effort, Not Just Achievement: Focus on any effort your child makes to do something that isn’t easy for them. Depending on where your child is at, this could range from getting organised in the morning, attending school that day, helping a classmate, learning a new word or concept etc., to something more involved like completing homework or an assignment. And celebrating doesn't have to be a grand gesture. A word of encouragement, a favourite meal or treat, or a special family activity can be a powerful way of showing your child that you recognise their effort.
By celebrating small wins, you can make a significant difference by reinforcing positive behaviour, building self-esteem, and sustaining motivation.
Keep a Victory Journal: Encourage your child to write down their daily or weekly efforts and achievements in a journal. This can be a great way to reinforce their capabilities, especially if they face a fall in confidence or escalation of anxiety down the track. Looking back through it can be very reassuring and motivating. Also, encourage your child to share their journal with trusted others who are likely to acknowledge and praise their efforts.
Set Achievable Goals: Break down larger tasks into smaller, manageable goals. This way, your child can experience the joy of accomplishments more frequently.
Flexibility is critical in managing school pressures and helps create a more supportive and less stressful environment.
Be Open to Change: Understand there will be good days and bad days. What works today might not work tomorrow. Be open to changing strategies, routines, or plans based on your child's needs.
Collaborate with the School: If possible, communicate with teachers on a regular basis. Inform them about your child's needs and work together to adapt educational strategies. These may include:
Your child may need techniques to calm down and regulate emotions such as anxiety, sadness, or anger when they arise.
Emotion Surfing: A simple but effective tool is to ride an uncomfortable feeling until it passes (like surfing a wave). Here are a couple of links to guide you:
Fight Negative Feelings: Uncomfortable feelings are often driven by negative thoughts. So If your child is willing and able to work at a more cognitive (“thinking”) level, they can learn to develop awareness of situations that trigger their feelings, ‘catch’ negative thoughts as they happen, stop the negative thoughts, and even challenge & reframe the negative thoughts. The following three links cover various aspects of these skills, so you may want to browse through them and try out a few ideas:
Empowering your child refers to the process of nurturing their sense of self-worth and laying a foundation for them to grow into confident, capable, and self-reliant adults.
This can be achieved by helping your child:
Cope with Negative Feelings and Thoughts: This is covered in the previous section.
Advocate for Themselves: Teach your child to recognise and speak up for their rights and needs.
Make Decisions and Solve Problems: Involve your child in making decisions in everyday activities, and finding solutions to problems as they present themselves. Take on board all your child’s decisions and solutions, even if they don’t match yours, and support them to learn from mistakes.
Focus on Strengths: Encourage your child to explore and focus on their individual interests and strengths. Also help them accept that they cannot be good at everything, and that setbacks will occur along the way.
A more detailed overview on ways to empower your child, with instructions and examples can be found at this link:
Social interactions are an integral part of school life, but they can sometimes be overwhelming. Your child may oscillate between wanting to connect with others and preferring to spend time alone, and these desires can be influenced by social anxiety or a perceived lack of acceptance and understanding from other kids.
Here’s how you can help:
Respect Their Pace: Encourage your child to socialise, but understand their comfort level. If large groups are intimidating, start with smaller, more manageable social settings.
Foster Safe Spaces: Encourage participation in clubs or activities where your child feels most comfortable. This can be a great way to make friends in a less pressured environment.
Embrace Solitude as a Positive Experience: Recognise that being alone is not the same as being lonely. It can be a time for self-reflection, relaxation, and enjoying your own company. This is important for a child’s sense of self-reliance if they can't find someone to hang out with. Send them to school with a book to read or drawing materials to use during breaks.
Many kids also find it helpful to bring something like a handball to school which can attract the attention of other kids who may want to join in and play. And if you’re looking for more ideas on how to help your child make friends, check out this link:
The topic of bullying is significant and warrants its own section. To learn more about what bullying is, how to identify it, why your child may be getting bullied, and a range of tips on how to manage it, you may find this link helpful:
By focusing on any of the areas in this article, you can help create a supportive and nurturing environment for your child. Remember, the goal is not to eliminate challenges, but to equip yourself and your child with some tools to help manage the social and academic pressures of school life.
Dr. Carissa Coulston-Parkinson is a Clinical Psychologist with specialist knowledge in the areas of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, intellectual disability, personality disorders, traumatic brain injury and neurological conditions.