(BPT) - Children and teens experience some of the most important moments of their lives at school. It’s where they spend two-thirds of their waking hours. Of course, school can be stressful, too — and not just because of pop quizzes and science projects.
“Stress isn’t the same for all children, and it impacts every one differently,” said Dr. Cheryl S. Al-Mateen, medical director of the Virginia Treatment Center for Children. “In fact, in some cases this stress can even be traumatic. If left unnoticed, it can lead to real mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and even substance abuse.”
Everyone deserves to feel comfortable talking about mental health — it plays an important role in a child’s overall health. Sometimes, however, topics around mental health can feel overwhelming or confusing for parents. Many may find it difficult to spot the difference between traditional school stress and the possibility of potential trauma. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help. As a start, Dr. Al-Mateen has five recommendations to support parents in understanding school issues, helping children cope and tackling potential problems.
* Check in about school. It can be difficult in our go-go-go world, but give your child your undivided attention for 5 to 10 minutes every day. Talk about their friends, teachers and classes. Open yourself to hearing the good and the bad, and ask what they find difficult — like feeling too nervous to talk or being teased for talking too much. These conversations help you identify problems as they arise, teach your child problem-solving skills and reinforce how deeply you care about their wellbeing.
* Strengthen your lines of communication. Your child may be more open about school if you have frequent conversations about other things as well. Talk to them about the little stuff, and they’ll be more apt to tell you about the big stuff. Listen without judging, and be ready to engage them in an activity if that makes them more comfortable. Braiding your child’s hair, shooting a few baskets in the driveway or working a puzzle can lead to a great conversation.
* Work with your school. If your child is showing signs of stress that concern you, don’t be afraid to reach out to their teacher(s) or school principal. Your child’s teacher may be able to shed light on what’s causing the stress and, if nothing else, can help watch out for your child during the school day.
* Establish a routine at home. Children thrive in stable, consistent environments. Creating a predictable schedule is helpful, if you can, but sometimes that’s just not possible. Make a big family calendar and keep it where everyone can access it. This empowers children to know what’s coming up and helps provide the solid foundation they crave at home. They’ll be better prepared to deal with changes and unexpected situations they may face at school.
* Seek help when you need it. How do you know if your child needs help beyond what you or the school can provide? Look for warning signs. For example, young children may complain about stomachaches and headaches that have no physical explanation. When depressed, a child may say that they’re angry, rather than sad, so listen for both — especially when their eating or sleeping patterns also change dramatically, they seem to have low energy or they aren’t taking pleasure in things they enjoyed before. These may be signs of a larger problem that needs to be addressed immediately with help from mental health professionals.
The school years are exciting, important times for your children, but they can be tough. Check in with your child daily and don't downplay the stress they may feel. Recognizing potential issues quickly can help prevent larger problems down the road. To learn more about the Virginia Treatment Center for Children and to find more resources to support you and your child, visit chrichmond.org/vtcc.