The seasons are changing once again as we near the end of summer. There is so much about our world these days that feels unpredictable, and over the past two years, the uncertainty of our daily lives has felt almost constant. While change and uncertainty are an inevitable part of being human in our current times and environment, there is some comfort in the familiar rhythms of fall, and the opportunity to be thoughtful about entering the new season with routines and practices that sustain and support our well-being and the wellbeing of our families.
This transition into autumn can come with a whole array of emotional experiences. Some may feel eager for cooler weather, walks through the leaves, and a return to a more consistent routine, while others may want to savor the summer season a bit longer, squeeze in another vacation or pool day, and children and young adults are feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement with the upcoming school year.
Sometimes, as parents and caregivers, we may forget how intimidating this time of year may be for younger people, especially if they are progressing to a new school or college. This period of time is an important one to pay attention to the mental health of our kids and teens.
According to WHO (World Health Organization), one in seven 10 – 19-year-olds experience a mental health disorder. Depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders are the most common conditions in this age group. We are also reminded of the toll that the past 2 and a half years have had on our kids and young adults. In Colorado, 39.6% of youth have reported feelings of depression, up from 34.7% in 2019 and 31.4% in 2017. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among teenagers nationwide and the first leading cause in Colorado. Adolescent mental health (who.int). This is why it is imperative that we take mental health care for children, adolescents, and young adults seriously and promote healthy habits and practices early on.
Do you remember how anxious you were on the first day of your new job? Even into adulthood, our biggest fears as humans come from the unknown, but there are approaches you can utilize to help your children or younger loved ones ease into the new school year, and there are resources available if you are worried about their mental and emotional well-being.
- Validate their feelings. When children feel stressed about school, they may react with a change in mood or behavior, which may look like feeling down, withdrawn, irritable, or acting out. Create space and time to connect with your children in ways that promote open conversation. Listen to their concerns and tell them that it is okay to feel this way. Reassure them that their classmates are likely feeling similar anxiety. Remember that some kids are comfortable talking about their feelings directly, and others may feel more comfortable if engaged in an activity with you at the same time (such as playing basketball or taking a car ride) where they feel less vulnerable in opening up.
- Develop a consistent routine. For many children, especially younger ones, feeling rushed or not knowing what to expect throughout the day can be very unsettling. Routines help provide a sense of security and calm. Set up an after-school schedule that leaves time for homework, extracurricular activities, meals, hygiene-focused tasks, and, most importantly, at least eight hours of sleep. If possible, start this general routine a week or so before the school year starts. This will help reduce your child’s anxiety about transitions.
- Prioritize their physical health. A healthy diet, physical activity, and good sleep are important at all times, especially during times of natural stress and transitions. Shift your schedules so that you can fall asleep earlier and achieve more rest during early school days. Set limits on screen time in the evening so they are not tempted to stay connected late into the night. If your child is interested in sports, encourage them to get involved in their school teams, or take walks or bike rides as a family. This will help improve their mood, sociability, and ability to pay attention in class.
- Weave self-care practices into your day-to-day life and model these for your children. Oftentimes we neglect our own self-care when dealing with big life transitions, for example, the transition of moving away from home for the first time to attend college. Download a meditation app (Headspace, Breathe, etc.). Write in a journal. Take a yoga class. Decorate your room/dorm with art that makes you happy. Remember that children learn from the adults around them. Talk to your children and show them the ways that you take care of yourself and model these self-care practices.
- Understand your resources. Research what kind of programs and resources are available to your child at their school or in the community. Many schools and colleges have professional counselors who are ready to speak with students about their struggles and help offer solutions. Jefferson Center has a school-based program where clinicians are on-site at many schools in the area to help support children, teenagers, and families with anxiety and other mental health challenges. Colorado has also expanded access to therapy for kids through the I Matter program, which provides up to six free behavioral health services for youth in Colorado.
It is frequently the case that times of opportunity and growth in our lives and the lives of our children are also times when we feel the most out of our comfort zone and anxious. As parents and caregivers, you will play a significant role in the development of your children and can support them through these times, but also know that there are support systems in place to help you and you are not alone. Remember that while your child experiences these normal transitions, or if they are struggling with mental health challenges, your own health and well-being are important as well. Caring for yourself is vital to being able to care for your loved ones. As the new season approaches, take time to invest in your own self-care, build habits that support your well-being, and find ways to bring joy and purpose into your daily life.