Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, shares insights into navigating the first weeks of school. Read on for seven ways to help kids and teens start the school year off right and build habits that foster strong mental health.
1. Encourage kids to define their values and goals
The beginning of the year is a good time for kids and teens to focus on who they want to be and what they believe in. This can help them make good decisions and maintain strong mental health.
"Goals are future-oriented. So, if you want to get all A's, that's great, but it's not something you can do today," Dr. Westers says. "What you can do today is live your values to achieve your goals. If your goal is to get good grades, working hard is a value you can practice to achieve that goal. If your goal is to make friends, kindness could be a good value to support that."
Setting aside some time for kids and teens to focus on their values and goals at the beginning of the year can help them focus on the person they want to be and foster strong mental health.
2. Think of this year as a new start
A new school year is a chance to start fresh. Kids can change a lot over the summer. New experiences, friends or even a growth spurt can shift your child's perspective. Encourage your child to see a new year as an opportunity to learn and grow and work on changing any behaviors that did not work well for them last year. Their goals and values can guide them in creating a new start. For example:
- If your child complained last year, encourage them to find the good in situations this year. You can also help them make an action plan for things they complain about. If they're complaining about a teacher or a subject, try to understand their frustrations and what they can do about it. Perhaps they don't understand the material in class, so they could try asking more questions. Encourage them to think about classes and teachers they enjoy, not only the ones that frustrate them.
- f they made poor decisions last year, they could work to use better judgment. Dr. Westers recommends trying the "Stop, Relax and Think" method, also called SRT.
"Before making a decision, we encourage kids to stop, take a deep breath and think about their next action. Is it worth it? What's the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario? What kind of person do they want to be, and does this choice align with their values?" Dr. Westers says.
3. Foster meaningful friendships
Positive, emotionally supportive friendships are important for your child's mental health. If your child wants to make new friends this year, encourage them to start small: Say hello to at least one person every day, compliment another classmate or ask them about their interests.
"Making new friends often requires at least one person getting outside of their comfort zone," Dr. Westers says.
Building meaningful friendships also means being a good friend to those around you.
"Be the friend that you want to have," Dr. Westers says. "That might mean being kind, reaching out if you see someone in need, encouraging people. If other kids are being mean to someone in your class, try being nice to that person rather than jumping in with the kids who are being mean."
It's also important to remember that when it comes to friends, quality is often more important than quantity.
"It's worth reminding kids that oftentimes having just a couple of close friends can be more important and rewarding than having tons of surface-level friends," Dr. Westers says.
4. Learn from setbacks
Learning from setbacks and building resilience – the ability to withstand and recover from difficulties - is a great way to foster your child's mental health. Dr. Westers encourages kids and teens to do this by reframing challenges as learning opportunities. For example:
- If they get a poor grade on a test, use that as a learning opportunity. What did they get wrong and how can they learn from that next time? Can they take the teacher's feedback and use that to improve the next assignment?
- If they said something hurtful to a classmate – even if they didn't mean to – acknowledge hurt feelings. Say sorry, and use this as a learning moment to try not to say hurtful things in the future.
- If they weren't selected for an activity they wanted to participate in – say they didn't make a sports team or get a part in the school play – encourage them to ask for feedback and how they can improve. They could also embrace this opportunity to try a different sport or join another activity.
5. Remember that grades are important, and so is being well-rounded
Many children and teenagers feel nervous and anxious about getting good grades. Dr. Westers recommends managing that worry by scheduling an occasional 10-15-minute worry time, and then moving on.
"That way, those anxious feelings don't control the rest of your week or negatively impact your grades," Dr. Westers says.
Dr. Westers also encourages kids and teens to remember that grades are important, but so are activities and interests outside of the classroom.
"Most employers and colleges are not only interested in your GPA; they also want to know if you have a life outside of your studies," Dr. Westers says. "A student with an imperfect GPA who also volunteers in the community still shows well-roundedness."
6. Remind your child that you're their biggest ally
Many of the most successful and emotionally healthy kids at school know that their parents can be their greatest ally. Dr. Westers shared the example of teens being invited to a beginning-of-the-school year part where they might be pressured to violate their values – but also don't want to decline the invite and sound uncool or judgmental.
"Most likely your parents would be willing to take the blame, and you can say something like 'Sorry, my parents already have something planned for us tonight that I can't get out of,'" Dr. Westers says.
Parents can also encourage their kids and teens to share how they are feeling and let them know that it's okay to feel sad or nervous sometimes. Make sure they know that you are there for them, they are not alone, and you are here to be their biggest cheerleader and help them when they need it.
7. Learn when to seek professional help
All kids and teens experience sadness and worries from time to time. But some parents may wonder if their child is experiencing typical ups and downs or may be dealing with a larger problem. Dr. Westers says that if your child is displaying the following signs or symptoms, it may be time to consult a pediatrician or a mental health professional:
- Noticeably and consistently different behavior. They may be having angry outbursts or seem much quieter and more reserved than their typical self.
- Poor sleep. It's normal for kids and teens to be a little nervous for the first few days of school and it's not unusual to lose a little sleep. But if they still aren't sleeping well for several weeks this may be a sign of a larger issue.
- School avoidance. Your child is consistently not wanting to go to school or seems panicked or distressed about school.
"It's not unusual for kids and teens to feel anxiety related to social interactions during the first few weeks of school – will they know anyone at school? Are their friends in their classes? Who will they sit with at lunch?" Dr. Westers says. "After they settle into their new schedule, many kids feel a bit of anxiety around grades and academic performance. But if your child continues to show these signs and seems like they're still really struggling several weeks into school, it may be worth consulting a mental health professional."
Children's Health is here to help as your child prepares for a new year at school. See more tips and advice for making this school year a healthy and happy one.