Safeguarding your child's mental health as school begins

Q: What can I do to safeguard my child’s mental health as school begins?

A: Many parents and caregivers have asked what they can do to support their children’s mental health as they return to school. 

Dr. Gail Beck
Dr. Gail Beck, the clinical director of youth psychiatry at The Royal

My answer to this question is to remember three things that can promote your child’s mental health.

First and foremost, parents must look after their own mental health. The evidence that children’s mental health is linked to their parents’ is very convincing. Your child knows when you’re anxious or depressed or stressed and it affects them. Also, in the same way that they cannot hide how they’re doing from you, you cannot hide your mental state from them. We all notice when the people we love aren’t doing well, even when we don’t know the reason. If you want to look after your child’s mental health, start by looking after your own. Take some time and reflect on how you’re doing.

You may also be feeling overwhelmed by the demands that our COVID-19 life has placed upon you. The double duty of working from home while you look after your children is a huge stressor. You may worry about your children getting sick when they go back to school, but you’re even more worried about the impact of them not being able to learn. Your research may have convinced you that your children will benefit from being back in the classroom and so you stay strong for them. You reach out to neighbours, school trustees and teachers. Use your energy to advocate for the best and safest return to school.

Remember, you have the power to help your child’s school situation be safe.

The second thing you can do is to help your child to be comfortable with physical distancing, washing their hands and wearing a mask. Help them to understand the importance of these measures and support them in accepting the safety protocols set up by their schools. Children and youth are worried about becoming ill with COVID-19, but it is possible to lower significantly the risk of infection by following the safety guidelines. If we all keep the recommended physical distance from each other and wash our hands properly often, this protects us. Wearing a mask prevents us from spreading infection, so we should not only wear a mask but expect others to do the same. This is a good outline of the safety measures.

The measures that keep us safe from infection help us not to feel as anxious because, when we are doing all we can to manage a situation, it can reduce anxiety levels. We may still be anxious because we are in a very unpredictable situation, it is stressful. Most of us, however, are reassured when we have done all we can to prevent becoming ill from COVID-19.

You can also remind your child that, if another student’s actions, e.g. not keeping physical distance, are making them uncomfortable, they can request that the rules be followed. It is helpful for parents to model a reasonable way of doing this. There has been too much incivility among us when we have had disagreements about these recommendations. The incivility is also not good for our mental health.

Finally, make time to discuss with your child how everything is going. Set a time every week. Make that time special, with just the two of you. Set aside lots of time and put away your devices. Ask your child to do the same. If your child is curious about this conversation, remind them that this is a time of risk. COVID-19 threatens all of us and we want everyone to be safe. Remind them that being back at school does increase the risk, but it is important to be back at school. For all these reasons, you want to check in with them. Remember to share your own feelings about the situation. This encourages your child to be forthright. The first few times you sit with your child to talk about school may be awkward, but stick with them. Eventually the conversations will begin to be productive.

There are a few circumstances to watch for that are signs that a young person may not be doing well. If their appetite or sleep cycle changes, or they spend less time reaching out to friends, or begin to avoid school, consider that they may not be doing well. Speak to them about these signs and say that it seems as if they’re worried. Ask specifically if they are despairing or thinking about hurting themselves. It is important to find out what is happening when worrying symptoms arise. If a child or youth protests, remind them how much you care. Remind them that this is the reason you are asking.

Remind your children how much you love them. You can never say this too often.

Have you had family members become sick or die of COVID-19? Losing a loved one and missing them is difficult. It can affect your mental health as well as your child's. If you are mourning, please consider looking through this website and learning about where to go to get help for yourself.