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Back to school: mental health tips for parents

Back to school: mental health tips for parents

As we head back to school this year, mental health has never been more important for parents and kids. Rates of anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse and eating disorders are all on the rise. Parents can make a significant positive impact on kids’ mental health by following these mental health tips.

  1. Set up a morning routine
  2. Stay organized
  3. Set up a sleep hygiene system
  4. Get support for yourself
  5. Go easy on yourself (and your kids)

Parents often focus on kids’ behavioral issues and try to fix them. But there is very little we can do to change behaviors unless we address the underlying issues. Sure, we can attempt to control our kids, but it rarely improves mood and behavioral disorders like eating disorders.

If your child has a problem you may believe that the only thing you can do is get your child into treatment. And it’s true that treatment may be necessary for them to heal. But there are also lots of things that parents can do to impact kids’ mental health. And they don’t cost a dime!

Parental behavior can have a larger impact on kids’ behavior and mental health than any other form of intervention. While this may seem daunting, changing our own behavior is often less stressful and time-intensive than attempting to fix our kids.

5 back to school tips for parents who want to improve kids’ mental health

Here are the five things parents can do to improve their kids’ mental health during back to school and beyond.

1. Set up a morning routine

We thrive on routine, and yet most of us resist structure and routine? Why? Because adopting a new routine can add more stress temporarily. But we know for sure that when we implement a morning routine and stick to it, our health improves. A morning routine is shown to reduce stress and improve sleep, eating, and physical condition.

If you have a child who has a mental health condition, a morning routine can be exactly what you need to improve their health. Parents must be in charge of and the key implementors of morning routines. It’s not enough to list out what must be done and expect kids to follow through. Part of the benefit of a family morning routine is the engagement it creates for parents and their kids.

But don’t worry: a morning routine doesn’t need to be complicated or take a ton of time. It can be simple as this:

  • Everyone wakes up at 6:30 a.m.
  • Brush teeth, hair, and get dressed by 7 a.m.
  • Gather for breakfast at 7 a.m.
  • Pick at least 2 ready-to-go breakfast items: cereal, milk, fruit, toast, hard-boiled eggs, pre-cooked bacon, nut/seed butter
  • Finish breakfast and leave the house by 7:30 a.m.

You can certainly adjust the timeline based on what works for your family. You may need to start earlier or later depending on your schedules. But aim to get all children and at least one parent involved in the morning routine every day.

2. Stay organized

Parents have a lot going on right now. It’s hard to juggle work and raising children. Our society does not make this easy for parents. We get it. And at the same time, it’s important for parents to stay organized and keep family life moving smoothly.

You are not expected to do this perfectly, but the more organized you remain, the better your kids’ mental health. Family organization varies for each family, but at a minimum, it should include the following elements:

  • A shared family calendar so that everyone knows about upcoming events, appointments, etc.
  • A weekly review of the week to come in which schedules are discussed and adjusted if needed
  • Organized work spaces that are stocked with pens, paper, chargers, laptops, and everything else that is needed to work at home
  • Regular meal times at which the majority of the family gathers at least once per day
  • Consistent bed times
  • Clear chore assignments for every member of the family

Every family will do this a little differently, but these elements combine to create a safe, structured environment in which kids’ mental health can thrive.

3. Set up a sleep hygiene system

Does your family believe in sleep hygiene? Have you taught the importance of following a sleep schedule to ensure that all of you get adequate sleep?

Most parents spend a lot of time thinking about nutrition, but very little time thinking about sleep. But sleep is probably the single most important element of physical and mental health. The diet industry spends billions per year telling people they are eating wrong. But the sleep industry has not done the same for sleep.

Getting enough sleep impacts every element of health:

Cognitive health: sleep improves concentration, productivity, and the ability to think clearly (it makes us smarter)

Mental health: adequate sleep is strongly associated with lower rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions

Physical health: sleep improves metabolism, cardiovascular health, endurance, speed, and coordination

A sleep hygiene system will help your entire family be healthier. Make sure you all apply sleep hygiene – parents need sleep as much as children do!

  • Establish a regular bedtime for each person
  • Turn off electronics at least 1 hour before bedtime
  • Create a night-time routine – use this time to connect with your child(ren) before sleep. Take time to connect with your partner and yourself, too!
  • Aim for the right amount of sleep every night based on the CDC’s sleep recommendations
  • Wake up at the same time every day

Parents can make a huge improvement in their kids’ mental health during back to school and beyond with sleep hygiene alone.

4. Get support

Many parents are running on empty. They are juggling multiple responsibilities and trying to do it all with very little support. Parenting today is very stressful. We expect a lot of ourselves, and the conditions are unprecedented.

The United States is based on principles of individuation and self efficacy. But humans evolved to work in groups and support each other. This discrepancy is why so many parents feel unsupported and isolated. You may think you can handle the stress, but it negatively impacts your kids.

Parental stress is a huge stressor for kids, and it has a significant impact on their mental health. Kids who have stressed parents experience more cortisol, and that impacts their cognitive, mental, and physical health.

But don’t let this stress you out more! You just need to get more support. Build up your support structure so that you don’t pass your stress onto your kids:

  • Connect with other parents so you can share stories and swap babysitting if needed
  • Find a support group if your child has a challenge. For example, there are support groups for parents who have kids with autism, ADHD, eating disorders, substance abuse, cancer, diabetes, etc.
  • Get therapy or coaching if you are struggling with your child’s diagnosis and care

5. Go easy on yourself (and your kids)

Give yourself a lot of leeway for making mistakes. Our kids don’t need us to be perfect. They need us to keep trying. Most parents worry that if they don’t know how to do something or if their child gets upset when they try, they should give up. But this is exactly the opposite of what we should do.

Kids need us to have resilience and persistence when it comes to our relationship with them. The only way we can be resilient is if we go easy on ourselves. We will not be resilient if we’re beating ourselves up or constantly criticizing ourselves for getting it wrong or being bad parents. We have to give ourselves grace and time to try new things. Parenting takes time and effort, but it does get easier with practice. And parents can learn to do things better and more effectively. Get support from a therapist or coach if you need help with this.

And kids also need us to go easy on them. The more a child is acting up or driving us crazy, the more they need us. Parents tend to think that a difficult child needs more control and dominance. But in fact these children need us to have compassion and empathy for them. Healthy children have parents who accept them and trust them to find their own path even in difficult times.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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