The summer wind-down has begun, and a hint of Fall hangs in the air. For many, it’s a captivating time of year: a time to refocus and a time to learn with the arrival of a new school year.
Growing up, as I prepared for the “big day,” I always felt a tad uneasy. I would question everything regarding school – from who my teachers would be to whether or not I would remember the previous year’s math lessons.
For many children and adolescents, this feeling of uneasiness is all too familiar. School can be difficult; it’s an endless challenge; and, for parents, it can be disheartening when your child feels anxious about starting the school year.
Added to that is the hustle and bustle of September. For parents, it’s a never-ending to-do list. There are lunches to be planned, afterschool activities to be organized, and bus routes to be arranged. Far too often, however, one item is overlooked: making mental wellness a priority for your child.
Talk… but don’t forget to listen
Mental health is a significant aspect of everyone’s health, essential to overall wellness. It’s not about avoiding problems or having the “perfect” life. Instead, it’s about living well and feeling capable, despite life’s challenges.
While it’s important to talk about mental health and overall wellness with your child, it’s just as important to listen.
If he or she is worried or upset about something, acknowledge the problem and assure them that their feelings are valid. Children must know that they can speak to their parents in a non-judgmental manner.
According to the Psychology Foundation of Canada, parents can also help by:
- listening when children are ready to talk,
- ensuring that there is ample opportunity to connect (ex: during meals, car rides, etc.),
- encouraging and supporting children’s interests,
- allowing for unstructured play, which teaches children decision-making, problem-solving, and self-confidence.
Visit the Psychology Foundation of Canada website for more tips.
Create resilient children
Hazel Russell, a social worker with Child Mental Health and Addictions at Eastern Health, explains that it’s beneficial for children to grow up with moderate levels of stress.
A parent herself, she understands that resisting the urge to “fix” everything for a child is easier said than done. “Parents tend to rescue their children from unpleasant situations, with all good intentions,” she says, “but it’s a practice we should work to avoid.”
She adds that, “situations, such as returning to school, can help children develop coping mechanisms and stress management techniques. This ensures that children can cope with the challenges of daily life… it’s how they become resilient.”
Remember: feelings of sadness, nervousness, and stress are normal. An accepting environment allows us to recognize if these feelings are persistent and require further support.
Consistency is key!
Daily schedules create predictability and comfort for children. Consider adopting healthy eating, sleep, and physical activity routines this school year.
Create a meal plan, especially for breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it often becomes the most stressful meal of the day for parents. Children are rushing, parents are scrambling – there is seemingly no time to prepare a nutritious breakfast… or to pack healthy snacks. Ease the pressure and prepare school lunches, snacks, and on-the-go breakfasts during the weekend or evenings.
The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends the following techniques for good sleep hygiene, for all ages:
- Set a bedtime and waking time. Try to ensure that children and teenagers go to sleep and rise at the same time each morning during the weekdays.
- Remove all technology from the bedrooms. Use beds for sleeping and not reading, watching TV, or listening to music as these activities stimulate the brain.
For teenagers, sleep schedules present more of a challenge. There is a tendency for this age group to stay up late at night studying. It’s important to encourage your teen to manage their homework and develop study techniques in advance.
Physical activity and mental health go hand-in-hand
The mind and body are linked, so an active lifestyle helps reduce stress. Whether it’s going for a walk after school, practising yoga or playing sports, physical activity is beneficial for us all. Find an activity that you and your child/teen can complete together.
“We’re often overwhelmed with information,” says Diane Bouwman, a clinical occupational therapist with Child and Adolescent Development and Mental Health. “When a person is stressed, the learning part of the brain can switch off, blocking access to information that they’ve learned. Resetting the brain can go a long way to unblocking and helping the child focus.”
She recommends Brain Gym ®, or learning through movement, to release this stress and to enhance learning. “I’ve been showing parents and kids these techniques for over 30 years. These gentle movements are perfect for children and teens, especially before they enter the classroom, write a test, or begin their homework.
Learn more about brain gym movements in this handout.
Be open… about alcohol and other substances
Adolescence can be a difficult life stage filled with relationships, decisions about the future, and self-discovery.
It’s during this stage of a young person’s life that they may begin to experiment. This is common, especially when a teen is pressured by peers, confused about their path in life, or overwhelmed about their feelings. Although this is normal, it’s important to speak to children and teens alike about addictive substances, such as alcohol and drugs.
Aimee Power, a social worker with Child Mental Health and Addictions at Eastern Health, is a firm believer in open and honest dialogue. “When parents have frequent discussions about alcohol and drugs with their child, it will be easier for the child to ask questions… they will be more likely to speak with their parents about substance use when they feel reassured that their parent will listen to their point of view,” she says.
Remember, talking to your child about these topics does not mean that you endorse them. Instead, it demonstrates that you are supportive and willing to listen; it shows that you are a safe person for them to confide in and seek guidance from.
“If a teenager fears punishment for coming to their parent for a ride home after a party where drinking was involved, they will be less likely to reach out for help,” adds Aimee. “Because of this fear, they are more likely to make poor decisions or risky choices.”
So, what do parents do if they are concerned about their teen using marijuana or drinking underage?
Aimee explains that the first step is to remain calm. “Then, if possible, choose a time when the child can fully engage in the conversation. Don’t make assumptions; be open, patient, and, above all, listen. Only then, can a productive conversation unfold.”
In fact, Drug Free Kids Canada website is a great resource to help guide these difficult conversations. Through this site, parents can even do a test run with a real teen before they speak with their own child.
Don’t underestimate the importance of mental wellness
Just like physical health, achieving – and maintaining – positive mental wellness health requires a consistent approach. Keep the lines of communication open with your child, create a schedule and encourage physical activity. Through these activities, you can contribute to a more positive and successful school year for your child, and your family.
The following e-mental health resources are for parents and children. These evidence-based services promote early intervention and overall wellness – and, they are easy to access and free!
- BridgethegApp: a provincial website that has self-help resources and information about various mental health topics. Links to free online programs, listings of local services and spaces for individuals to share their stories and concerns.
- BreathingRoom: online self-management program for young people looking to find ways to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. There are eight modules which include skills, education, and activities. No referral is needed and the link to join is on bridgethegapp.ca.
- 30-day Mindfulness Challenge: five to 10-minute daily mindfulness activities. No referral is needed and the link to join is on bridgethegapp.ca.
- Kids Help Phone: free telephone, live chat and texting support to children and youth, 24/7. Call 1-800-668-6868, visit https://kidshelpphone.ca/ or download the Always There App.
- Crisis Text Line: Youth can text ‘Talk’ to 686868 if they are experiencing a mental health crisis. They will be connected with a trained volunteer crisis responder who will help with any issues – big or small. The service is free, confidential, and available 24/7.
- Drug Free Kids Canada – A private sector, non-profit organization that offers parents tools and practical tips on how to start the dialogue.
- Health Canada: Straight Talk about Marijuana
If you or someone you know is looking for more information about mental health services, please visit the Eastern Health website.
If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, please call 911 or the Mental Health Crisis line at 1-888-737-4668. ■
This story was written by Sarah Greening, a public relations co-op education student during her work term at Eastern Health.