Concerned about your child’s mental health heading back to school? An expert shares tips for parents

Licensed mental health counselor offers proactive ideas on getting ready for new school year

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Even with fewer pandemic restrictions, the new school year still promises to be at least somewhat A-typical, which could cause extra stress and anxiety for children as they head back into the classroom.

Concerns over COVID-19 remain high, especially with the number of cases surging across Florida and the country due to the delta variant. Dr. Fatma Levent, of AdventHealth for Children, said the delta variant is affecting children more than previous strains.

Some students may also be readjusting to a classroom setting after learning from home during the last school year. All of this comes on top of the normal pressures children face academically and socially.

Despite that, Brittany Sted Weaver, a licensed mental health counselor with A Place for Growth in Orlando, said there are practices and plans parents can put in place now to help their children get ready for the new school year and cope with any potential stressors.

“One of the biggest things that can be helpful is practicing the routines in the morning to reduce that ‘what’s going to happen’ anxiety and concern,” Sted Weaver said.

She suggested doing a test run ahead of the school year.

“Get ready. Pack up the car. Get in the car and drive to school. Park, see how that feels. Process what comes up,” Sted Weaver said.

She added that sticking to a nighttime routine is equally as important to a child’s mental health.

“Another thing that is really important — that I know a lot of people will neglect during the summer, and then when you go back to school the first week really stinks — is developing a bedtime routine now before school starts and sticking to it,” Sted Weaver said. “Lack of sleep can really impact mental health.”

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Sted Weaver stressed the need for parents to build a report with their children when it comes to talking to them about their feelings — acknowledging and validating their concerns, rather than just telling them that things will be OK.

“It’s really easy, as a parent to want to fix things, or to give advice but sometimes children just want to be heard,” she said.

Part of that conversation could include topics like wearing a mask in school. Most school districts in Central Florida have decided to make masks optional for students and staff this school year. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending all students and staff wear masks during in-person education, regardless of their vaccination status — though the organization also points out that in-school transmission rates are low and severe COVID are rare among children.

Still, wearing or not wearing a mask could make a child stand out in their peer group, depending on what their classmates are doing.

“I think (masks are) a great thing to have a conversation about, parent to child. Talk about what it means for them to wear a mask and how it makes them feel,” Sted Weaver said. “Process those emotions that come up. Do they feel left out or isolated that maybe they’re one of the few wearing masks or one of the few not wearing masks or do they feel more worried or does it make them upset that their friends aren’t wearing a mask — do they get mad. Discuss those different things and let those feelings get validated and develop a plan on what to do, as well.”

Sted Weaver added that it can help to give your child options so that they do not feel like they are being forced into a situation.

Another topic to discuss with your child ahead of the first day of school would be the COVID-19 vaccine and the potential for them to hear misinformation about the shots.

“Assume (your child hearing vaccine misinformation) will eventually happen and have a plan in place for it. This will make it easier to deal with it in the moment and act accordingly,” Sted Weaver said.

The CDC also has a wealth of resources for parents and children of all ages in regards to the pandemic — offering education about COVID-19, information on the vaccine and checklists for back to school.

Sted Weaver stressed the importance of being proactive when comes to your child’s mental health.

“Even if something doesn’t seem that wrong — and maybe everything’s fine and maybe this will be over precautionary — why not get it checked out, just in case, just to prevent something,” she said. “It’s better to continue to be on the side of caution and get that help.”

She recommends that mental health should be part of a child’s overall health regimen.

“I think just starting to even let it be known that we’re working on our mental health or we’re going to see a counselor, therapist or even a psychiatrist to get evaluated — or to do a checkup similar like you would go to your primary care (doctor) or your pediatrician — and really just normalizing that first and foremost.”

The counselor said even checking in with your child, without making them feel pressured to talk, can help you to keep an eye out for signs of a bigger issue — such as school avoidance or symptoms of anxiety, like chronic headaches or stomach aches.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavior problems, anxiety and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children, according to the CDC.

  • 9.4% of children aged 2-17 years (approximately 6.1 million) have received an ADHD diagnosis.
  • 7.4% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.5 million) have a diagnosed behavior problem.
  • 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have been diagnosed with anxiety.
  • 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have been diagnosed with depression.

Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, instances of depression and anxiety among adolescents have risen over the years, though rates vary among age groups.

Rates of depression, anxiety and behavior disorders among adolescents by age group according to the CDC (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Sted Weaver suggested working on coping techniques such as breathing exercises or even using a meditation app at least once a week.

“Just having them (your child) sit down and engage in nothing but that (meditation) can be really helpful,” she said.

However, playing video games or watching TV is not a solution for dealing with stress, according to Sted Weaver.

“Escapism is not a way to cope,” she said.

For those looking to find a counselor or therapist for their child or themselves, Psychology Today has a comprehensive searchable database broken down by location of mental health counselors across the U.S. It also provides information on what types of insurance each counselor takes or whether they offer a sliding scale payment plan.

It is important to note that if your child is experiencing a mental health crisis or experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there is help available 24/7. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-8255 or you can text the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741. Both services are free.

For more resources on spotting mental health issues in your children and how to talk to them about it, click here.


About the Author:

Thomas Mates is a digital storyteller for News 6 and ClickOrlando.com. He also produces the podcast Florida Foodie. Thomas is originally from Northeastern Pennsylvania and worked in Portland, Oregon before moving to Central Florida in August 2018. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in Journalism in 2010.