How you can improve your child’s mental health as the new school year starts

Yffy Yossifor/yyossifor@star-telegram.com
·5 min read

For students, a return to the classroom can be both delightful and daunting.

After a couple of years of COVID — and now the specter of violence in schools becoming all too real — things may not be as peppy as some parents may think. Vigilance is key in knowing what your children are doing, according to Dr. Alan Podawiltz, department chair of psychiatry at JPS Health Network.

One thing parents need to lookout for is the term “back-to-school necklace,” which is a euphemism for a noose, not a fashion accessory, Podawiltz said. The term has been all over social media channels and can be defined as students wanting to hang themselves.

“That often scares me that kids can harm themselves in such different imaginative ways,” he said. “To popularize a phrase around it is a little scary.”

Beyond the self-harm term, mental health for students is an important factor to be aware of, Podawiltz said.

Going back to school can be frustrating

Going back to school can be a stressful time for students after a long summer break from the classroom. For some, it might take weeks to readjust.

Students have to make adjustments in their daily routine as they go back to school. It can be a stressful transition from a carefree summer with friends to all of sudden having to conform to a schedule, Podawiltz said.

It can be a frustrating time that drives up students’ anxiety levels. Parents and teachers need to be vigilant — looking for signs of sadness or fear, Podawiltz said.

“If you happen to see those kinds of behaviors, emotions, where the student is not engaging with others, then it would be wise for them to actually reach out and ask that student how they’re doing,” he said.

Feelings of frustrations and hopelessness creep out in the open because they now no longer have control of their day, Podawiltz said. There’s also the added pressure of passing grades in order to progress to the next school year.

Typically, it takes about three weeks for students to be reacquainted with their new schedule and tasks. That’s why teachers usually go slow into their lesson plans at the beginning of the school year, Podawiltz said.

“Anytime that we human beings have a point of change in our lives, we need to take extra effort to examine how that change is affecting us emotionally,” he said.

Parents need time with their children

Back-to-school is a stressful time and there are several things parents can do to reach students who are struggling.

Parents need to find time to spend with their children, Podawiltz said. “We time” is for everyone to be together and be present for each other.

“You can’t directly ask someone, ‘Are you feeling depressed?’” he said. “You have to really get a sense of where they’re at, how are they adjusting to life, what’s happening in the world around them, the students. And to do that, you have to kind of have some insight.”

This time together can come in the form of having dinner together with everyone present at the table and not lost in their phones or other distractions, Podawiltz said. Preparing and cooking meals together, washing or working on a vehicle or perhaps even working outside in the yard are other ways parents can stay close with their children..

By having this time together, the family begins to get a sense of the emotional well being of their children, Podawiltz said.

“What they’re doing is actually providing structure and opportunity for the children and adolescents to do something in an organized way,” he said. “That is beneficial both to the parent and to the child.”

When should parents get help?

When a parent can help identify what’s going on with their child and the struggles they may be experiencing, then they can identify the help they need, Podawiltz said:

  • Emergency — This is if the child is having thoughts of suicide, which if that’s occurring, the child needs to be seen by a mental health professional immediately or go to the nearest emergency room. There’s no time to wait if the child is actively thinking about suicide or has a plan in place, they need to be in a safe place for evaluation, he said.

  • Urgent — This tier relates to dramatic behavioral or emotional issues. With urgent, the child needs to be seen by a mental health professional immediately.

  • Ongoing — This is where the child is not doing well in school or acting sad most of the time. Parents need to seek services from the community like a psychotherapist or child therapist.

In Tarrant County, there’s My Health My Resources of Tarrant County, John Peter Smith Hospital and Cook’s Children, for resources on mental and physical health. Families also can check with their pediatrician’s who have access to resources that could help children with behavioral health concerns.

Reaching out needs to be parents’ first step, Podawiltz said. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

“When people are going through significant changes, it’s important that they do that mindfully,” he said. “They understand that it is a day-by-day process, that they need to be present today, and to be reflective of the day at the end of the day. So they know what works well, what didn’t work well, and to use the resources that are around them.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing a crisis or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-8255.”