Your Child’s Back-to-School Mental Health Checklist

By Katherine Ellison

Summer may nearly be over, but there’s sadly no end in sight for America’s epidemic of adolescent anxiety and depression. That’s why I’ve compiled this list of five mental health goals to remember amid the stress of the start of another school year. These are eminently helpful goals, whether your child is returning to public school, home-schooling, or some hybrid thereof, and they work well for parents, too.

Snooze or Lose

Let’s start with the no-brainers.

Most parents already know how essential it is to get a good night’s sleep, not to mention a diet high in protein and low on Red Bull, Skittles and Pringles. Yet we all could use some reminding.

America is suffering a national epidemic of poor sleep, and adolescents are among the worst casualties.

  • Talk to your pediatrician if you think a physical or emotional problem may be interfering.
  • Keep bedrooms dark, cool, and quiet, with no computers or TVs. Insist that phones and laptops be used in just one central place in the home. Ideally, have phones handed to you one or two hours before bedtime. Buy an old-fashioned alarm clock rather than letting your kids use their phones.
  • No caffeine or exercise within four hours of going to bed. (Parents, for you, no alcohol before bedtime.)
  • For insomnia, take a page from grandma: a hot bath 90 minutes before bed, and a cup of cold or warm milk, which is rich in tryptophan, a sleep-inducing amino acid.

A Reason to Get Out of Bed

Alas, there are many justifiable reasons for a kid to be blue, from the general state of the world to the latest disappointing grade on a math test. But there’s also one evidence-based strategy to elevate a mood: redirect attention from oneself to others.

No kidding: a growing scientific literature shows that altruism yields mental health benefits.

  • Maybe your child can begin by caring for a pet dog or cat. Or a goldfish! It’s fine to start small.
  • Many churches and synagogues often organize volunteer programs that you can participate in as a family.
  • Do avoid the temptation to compare your kids’ sorrows with those of children in Ukraine or Bangladesh. Always start by listening. But encouraging your child to think about how to help others will help build compassion and make the world a better place.

Move It!

Regular aerobic exercise has a ton of mental health benefits. The supporting research is abundant and increasing. Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” compares exercise to a medicine cabinet full of natural stimulants and mood-boosters, including the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin and endorphins, the endogenous opioid hormones that relieve pain and anxiety. This of course is extra to all the physical benefits of moving, such as helping you stay in shape, which boosts self-esteem, and improving sleep.

  • Learn what your child has available through school and if it’s not enough, supplement it with one of a long list of after-school possibilities.
  • Join a gym together and set goals.
  • Take a bike ride together before school starts.
  • Look into community pools.

A Posse

    Maybe your child is a loner, bookworm, or obsessed hobbyist. He or she still needs friends. Close relationships with peers are a fundamental part of being human, so if you see signs you’re your child is lonely, don’t tell yourself there’s nothing you can do.

    • Notice what your kid best likes to do and strategize about ways it can be done with others.
    • Have a subtle conversation with a friendly teacher who might have some good ideas.
    • Think about what might be standing in the way of friendships. Consider getting your child help for ADHD or extreme social anxiety.

    Being There

    Your child by now may be old enough to be sending you all those adolescent signals that tell a parent to back off: rolling eyes, seeming to not listen, etc. Take it in stride. You are still needed, so act accordingly.

    • Try to have a regular time of day when your child knows you are available to talk. Take an interest without overstepping.
    • Monitor your communication style to make sure there’s a healthy ratio of positive to negative feedback.
    • Model forthrightness. Talk calmly but frankly about emotions, acknowledging them without nagging. “How’s your mood?” is a simple ice-breaker.

    No one said being a parent was easy, and our complex world has made it harder, cognitively at least, than ever. But smart choices today can make a lifetime of difference for both you and your child.

    About the Author

    Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer-prize-winning former foreign correspondent and author and co-author of a dozen books, including the family memoir “Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.” She found out she had ADHD at 48, after her then 9-year-old son received his diagnosis.

    Learn more about Katherine here.