As D.C.-area parents and children get ready to start school and settle in to their new routines this fall, a recent survey found that parents are worried about their kids’ mental health, and a local doctor has advice to help allay their concerns.
The MedStar Health back-to-school survey, conducted last month, included responses from the primary caregivers of school-age children in the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan regions.
“One thousand caregivers and parents were surveyed, And it was found that 90% were concerned with their children’s mental health; 61% very concerned,” said Dr. Gillian Adams, medical director of MedStar Alexandria.
So, how can parents make the new environment the most mentally healthy for children?
Let them know what to expect and what’s going to happen, Adams said. This includes what they’re going to do when they walk into the classroom. Find the classroom; see who’s in their classes, and meet new teachers. Explain how some kids will be in masks and some won’t; some might be vaccinated, and some might not.
Begin routines for bedtime and waking up. Adams said kids thrive on structure, and everything works better with a plan.
“So we will have a plan for starting school — set out clothes the night before, think about breakfast and lunch for the week. What’s the bus schedule, the car schedule? What are they going to do after school,” Adams said. “Also, some things don’t go as planned and that’s OK.”
Having a celebration to mark the end of summer and the same one to start school can be helpful.
“Marking transitions can create safety and set the tone for change,” Adams said.
Parents can support children’s resilience by creating a nurturing environment at home.
“Parents should really work on not letting their anxiety affect their children,” Adams said. “You want to turn off the news when the kids are in the room — turn off social media, play music, play a game. Make it that warm, loving environment.”
What are some things parents should be on the lookout for?
Red flags for depression, anxiety and stress can come out as physical symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, saying something’s wrong, or dizziness.
“Those are some main ones I see,” Adams said. “The other thing is, if they’re irritable — they used to be that sweet kid, and now every little thing is bothering them. Also, if they start to have the negativity in terms of the way they’re talking about their school: ‘I’m bored. Nobody likes me. I’m not good at this.’”
To find out whether there’s cause for concern over how a child is doing, ask questions: “What makes you upset? What makes you happy? How are you feeling today?”
The key is “to not always feel like we have to proactively fix things, but to hear them,” Adams advised. “Parents need to hear their children and validate them — say things like, ‘I understand how you’re feeling.’”
If children seem to be exhibiting signs of increased stressed, Adams recommends that parents talk with the family doctor or pediatrician, and/or seek mental health therapy.