#11: How To Help A Child/Teenager With A Mental Disorder Transition Back To School

It’s almost time for kids to go back-to-school and whilst many parents may be rejoicing, parents of children/teenagers living with a mental illness will probably be feeling anxious, apprehensive and a little worried.

For children/teenagers with a mental illness/disorder, it can be a time of anxiety, depression and fear: Will I fit in? will I make friends? Will anyone make fun of me? Having lived with depression and suicidal thoughts, I cannot begin to imagine how kids must be feeling returning to school in 2019, so much pressure, so many expectations and so many unknowns. Organization and communication with your child/teenager is key to helping and supporting him/her start the school year on the right foot.

Plan Ahead
Set up psychiatry appointments ahead of time just as you would physicals or vaccinations. Get the needed paperwork for the school nurse to administer medications at school, if needed. Look at the school calendar ahead of time and see what days work best for future appointments.

Talk to your child/teenager
Ask about his/her fears or worries about going back to school, what are the concerns. What is he/she excited about or looking forward to? Talk about what he/she liked in the previous school or class/grade and try to include the good things into the return to school plan.

Be supportive and understanding, change can be difficult. Let your child/teenager know that you are aware of what he/she is going through and that you will be there to help. Nerves are normal, explain that not everything that is different is necessarily bad. It is important to encourage your child/teenager to talk about his/her fears and work together on how to deal with the fear and anxiety.

Start the Back-to-School Routine Early
Whilst this is important for all kids, if you have a child/teenager with a mental disorder, it is imperative to start this routine at least two to four weeks before school starts. Suggestions include:

  • Limit time on social media and find out who your child/teenager is presently messaging, playing games with, etc.
  • Get them on a sleep schedule
  • Talk about school regularly. Be positive and encouraging. Attend any open houses together
  • Practice the walk or bike ride to school, drive the bus route
  • Plan with them how they’ll manage emotions and behaviors in class
  • Practice coping skills in the days leading up to first day of school
  • Prepare school supplies, select backpack, binder, lunchbox or lunch money
  • Try and set up a walk through the school: where is classroom, counsellor’s office, locker, lunchroom, pick up and drop off location, etc. Ask for a copy of schedule to review with child/teenager. This will help ease the fear and anxiety of the unknown
  • If your child/teenager struggles academically, develop a plan for getting homework done and assignments turned in on time. Set an after-school routine, such as snack time, social media time and homework
    If your child/teenager is starting a new school, walk around the block, get to know the neighborhood. Knowledge of the school and the community will help you to understand your child/teenager’s surroundings and the transition he/she is dealing with
  • If your child/teenager is worried about having no friends or feels lonely, encourage him/her to contact a friend before the start of school. For young children, schedule a play date before school starts and help them make plans to see each other at recess or lunch on the first day of school
  • Review your schedule and plan to be available for your child/teenager for the first week of return to school

Educate Teachers on Your Child/Teenager’s Mental Illness
Meet with the teachers, school counsellor, principal. Explain what mental disorder your child/teenager has, discuss strategies on how best to manage behaviours, symptoms (anxiety, panic attack), how to support and encourage child/teenager
Find out how school handles bullying, disciplinary action, etc.

If your child/teenagers needs prescribed medication administered during school day, who will give the medication

If the child/teenager has an individualized education plan (IEP), study it closely before he goes back to school. Note what’s expected of teachers and school and discuss with them, be open and honest, help them to understand your child/teenager, and to be prepared and aware of abilities, behaviours, what works well, what a bad day looks like, etc.

Set up a time to meet your child’s teacher, counsellor, or school principal and figure out a way to communicate that works well for both of you

Remember, kids are like sponges, and absorb the energy and adapt to the behaviors around them.

One of the most helpful things a parent can do is to remain calm and confident whilst helping your child/teenager get ready for school. A child usually starts school no calmer than the least-relaxed parent. On a final note, to all parents out there, I would like to say, that whilst preparation is important, please remember that things will go wrong, that is life, don’t stress, be flexible, open minded and if all else fails, relax and just laugh, it is not the end of the world.

In my next Blog #12
I will be discussing attachment disorders in children and teenagers

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