How can parents better prioritize their children’s mental health this school year?

As an adolescent therapist, I often make light of the fact that my work schedule revolves around high school football coaches or dance team competitions. I half-jokingly express my frustration to others that the biggest threat and obstacle to continuing progress with my clients is a change in their extracurricular activities. My consistent busiest time of the year is right in the middle of a school semester, as teens find their own “busy-ness” finally catching up to them to the point that parents are seeking help.

Written by Jazmin Gutierrez

I find that there are two reasons why these trends keep happening: kids are not maintaining their own mental health practices regularly, and parents are waiting until their child shows signs of a problem to step in. The difficulty in remedying these issues, like most struggles with teens, is that the best solutions require effort from the teen and the adults in their lives. This is because adolescence is a crucial time in which a child begins to practice daily habits and decision-making skills that will further develop into adult behaviors. When we view adolescence from this perspective, it’s interesting to think about the pressure we as a society place on this current generation to succeed in their youth so that they succeed in adulthood.

Society pressures our teens to excel in their academics to achieve college scholarships, to find a sport they’re good at so they can stand out and make a name for themselves, to be “the best” at something so that others think highly of you, and so on. Teens need caring adults to be louder than the messages the outside world is constantly bombarding them with. They need our help in navigating challenges and building self-efficacy, leading to stable mental wellness. As we enter into the new school year, here are some practical ways parents can support their children in prioritizing their mental health.

Evaluate their schedules and don’t be afraid to make changes.

Kids these days seem to be involved in everything. Some parents over-schedule their children to a fault, and some parents can’t say no to their overly-ambitious child’s desire to do everything. It is your responsibility as a parent to guide your child’s lifestyle appropriately, as the lifestyle your child lives now may influence their lifestyle as an adult. Think about what you are trying to teach your child through the schedule you have created for them. Does your child’s schedule support their growth in life skills, such as decision-making, interpersonal connections with others, and healthy self-esteem? Are you teaching your child how to maintain a work-life balance? Is this a realistic lifestyle they can maintain without your help?

As a psychology major in college, I learned about Occam’s Razor, a philosophy that explains the simplest solution is most often the best solution. Perhaps small changes to your child’s schedule is all that is needed to improve their mental health. Invite your child to the evaluation process and identifying potential changes. Some may include designated study times on weekends, utilizing study hall hours at school to accomplish work ahead of the due date, and other skills that promote the importance of time management. Bigger changes may include limiting involvement to only one extra-curricular activity per semester or avoiding overlapping sports per season. These changes will allow your child to focus on activities that provide meaning and enjoyment to their lives, which creates a sense of purpose and belonging necessary for their self-image.

Require a lifestyle that promotes positive mental health.

As mentioned before, a parent guides their child in forming the lifestyles they will develop as adults. Therefore, parents should stress good, basic life skills just as much as those academic and professional skills. Much of my work in counseling adolescents is encouraging the permission to value themselves, an issue they should not have to deal with at their age. Setting expectations for your child to maintain healthy living habits holds them accountable and emphasizes the significance of mental wellness. When a child is shown the importance of caring for themselves, they learn to value themselves.

A schedule that supports a child’s mental health allows for time for leisure and creativity, where not every single thing they do has to be productive. It is flexible enough that anxiety is not automatically induced when an inconvenience occurs. Their activities don’t interfere with basic self-care practices, such as eating a nutritious dinner daily, having a consistent bedtime, or having a moment for relaxing mindfulness and prayer. Chores and familial responsibilities are still manageable to develop personal growth and caring skills. Quality time with friends and family is highly regarded, as strong relationships with loved ones are the real indications of success in life. Holding these standards as a parent shows your child their worth, and that some things are not worth risking their mental health.

Normalize growing areas and ask for help.

I’d say that 90% of the time I first meet with a teenage client, they had been showing signs of distress for at least several weeks before the appointment is scheduled. It’s not that most parents are just not paying attention to their kids at all; rather, some parents feel uncomfortable letting a stranger into their family issues, and most don’t know what the right step is to help their kids. This is made even more complicated by the tendency for most teens’ reluctance to inform their parents of their struggles, which is intensified by the negative beliefs promoted by society that they are the problem and would only further disappoint their parents. Shame keeps the teen from coming forward, and the parent’s shame keeps them from seeking professional assistance.

As a parent, you cannot let this cycle of shame hold your family back. Your child needs you to be open to talk about life’s struggles and mental health issues so that they are aware of your support if it is ever needed. Your child needs your life experience to know that it’s ok to not have everything together. When a parent normalizes weakness or growing areas, a child is shown that life can still be good even when it’s not perfect. Maintaining a regular connection with your child will help you see the signs of distress when they aren’t able to recognize it for themselves. You can’t read your child’s mind, but you can know them well enough to notice when things are off and they aren’t their normal selves. When you notice concerns, reach out to a counselor to see if counseling would be beneficial for your child and they will guide you the rest of the way. Establishing counseling services for your child is providing them an opportunity to take charge of their health and evoke their strengths and resiliency to overcome life’s obstacles.

To sum everything up, the way parents can prioritize their children’s mental health this school year is by knowing them and playing an active part in their lives. This is done through offering connection and a secure relationship they can trust, where a child can feel seen and heard when it’s needed the most. Giving your teens helpful attention lets them know they can overcome life’s challenges with a support system available. This school year, we can encourage our teens to focus less on what is going to make them successful 5 years from now, and more on what is going to make them healthy, caring, and happy kids today.

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