Hector’s House tips on looking after your family’s mental health when children are returning to school
Local suicide prevention and mental health awareness charity Hector’s House share their top tips on how to care for your child/young person’s mental health – and yours – on the much anticipated return to school this week.
- Check your own emotions: Often our children mirror their parents or guardians’ feelings. So before you explore how your child feels about the return to school, ask yourself how you feel? If you are anxious or panicked about the thought of losing control, see if you can switch your focus onto what you can control. If you are nervous about how serious the school will be about masks or hygiene, email or call them to help put your mind at ease.
- Pick a good time to talk: Springing a conversation about emotions out of the blue can startle a child, and they might not be ready to communicate their feelings well in that moment. Tell them; ‘hey, after lunch let’s talk about going back to school. I want to hear your thoughts about it.’ This gives them time to get their thoughts into order, and allocates a safe time to open up.
- Practice Active Listening: If your child begins to open up to you (at any time), if possible, drop everything you are doing and listen. Non-direct conversations are usually best, so if you can, go for a walk or a drive to avoid the awkwardness of eye contact and body language. When your child opens up to you, remember your 4 P’s: Praise, Praise, Praise and Patience. Tell them how proud you are of them for being so honest, validate their feelings and remind them they are not alone and you are here to help.
- Validate: One of the best ways to help your child is to validate every emotion they present to you. If they tell you that they are feeling anxious, angry, grumpy or upset – reassure them that that emotion is normal, welcomed and accepted. Tell them it’s OK to not feel OK right now, because everything is different and that’s hard to deal with. Tell them by allowing their negative emotions space, the quicker they will pass – because all feelings, good and bad, come and go as long as we recognise them.
- Inform your Child: Give them as much information about the new school system as you can before they go back. If you have received guidelines about what the school is doing to keep the children and staff safe, share as much as this with your child as possible. They may already be catastrophizing the experience in their minds, so by talking through the facts, this will help to prepare them for what to expect.
- Physical Feelings: If they are struggling to communicate how they are feeling emotionally, ask them how it feels physically when they think about the return to school. This can be much easier and ‘real’ for young people to explain. Are they feeling a tightness in their chest? Feel like they need to cry or shout? Is their heart racing? Again, remind them these feelings are common signs of stress or worry, and help them through it using some stress busting techniques such as colouring, mindfulness, or playing board games.
- It’s not Black and White: Remember that children and young people have limited life experience, and this means they are more prone to catastrophizing situations, or using black and white thinking (something will either be the best or worst outcome, nothing in between). This is very common with exam-age young people, who may be worried about the amount of time they’ve had to prepare. Sit down with them and ask what they are worried about, and write down the absolute worst case scenario and the absolute best. Help them to recognise these are both pretty unlikely, and something in the middle is much more probable – and that’s much easier to handle.
- Create a safe space at home for them: Going back to school will be exhausting, so they will need downtime in order to not burn themselves out. Now might not be the time to bang on about their untidy rooms or to nag them over homework. Instead, suggest these things get done together, and allow them the chance to rest.
- The Importance of Sleep: Although we have just told you not to nag too much, it is crucial we explain the importance of sleep to our youngsters. Getting enough shut-eye will massively improve their resilience and mental (and physical) well-being. Creating a healthy bedtime routine before school returns will really help them to get restorative sleep. This can include no screen time an hour before bed, encouraging them to read or journal before lights go out, and ensuring there are no distractions (e.g. TV or phones). We understand this is easier said than done, but it really will make a big difference.
- You are not Alone: If you are seriously concerned about a young person’s well-being, please don’t feel like this is all on you – and you do not have to solve this alone. There are countless number of helplines out there for you and your child.
- Call Young Minds Parent Helpline for advice: 0808-802-5544
- Remind your young person of helplines such as texting HECTOR to 85258 if they want someone anonymous to talk to.
- Email us on email@example.com for any tailored advice or help you may need. We are here for you.
- You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup: Lastly, but no less important, look after YOU. You are also going through a big change, and it’s hard to be so much for someone else at the same time. Don’t feel guilty for needing time and space for yourself, in fact we encourage it. See it as your very own homework! As we always say, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Make sure you are also getting restorative sleep and are practising good self-care when you can. And remember: you are doing your best for your child, and that is something to be incredibly proud of.