Would you allow your child to be absent from school for a mental health day? The answer was a resounding yes when I posed the question to a “moms panel” on a recent edition of my parenting segment, “Maggie and the Moms” on Daytime.
We agreed that, while we don’t condone school absence willy-nilly, we’re on board with giving our children a mental break when necessary.
Renowned Tampa Bay Child Psychologist, Dr. Maria Aranda, notes that 50 percent of all lifetime mental health illnesses start by the adolescent years. She supports taking a mental health day to “pause, regroup, clear your mind and process your emotions.”
MR: What are the benefits of taking mental health days?
Dr. A: Many kids are stressed and overwhelmed and are not sleeping enough. A stressed brain cannot learn as efficiently as a brain that is in a state of calmness.
A stressed brain is operating in a fight, flight or freeze mode.
Mental health days allow children to rest and reset so that they can come back to school feeling less overwhelmed, which will ultimately help them learn.
MR: What are helpful activities to do during a mental health day?
Dr. A: The goal is to minimize tasks and take the time to pause, breathe, clear one’s mind. Suggestions can include engaging in relaxing activities, sleeping in, going to lunch or taking a walk with a parent.
Also, it can be helpful to take some time to reflect on what contributed to the feelings that precipitated the need for a mental health day.
This can then allow for some type of change that could be helpful in the future (for example, the need to consistently get to sleep earlier, or the need to buy an agenda to write down homework).
MR: What do you say to the parent who is against missing school for mental health days because “that’s what weekends are for.”
Dr. A: Mental health does not distinguish between the days of the week, as it is similar to physical health.
When you are physically sick on Monday, you likely will not wait until Saturday to take actions to improve your health.
You will take Monday or Tuesday off; you will take medicine on Monday or Tuesday and visit your physician.
The same can be said for acute mental health struggles: It will be more helpful to address the issue that day to prevent an escalation and deterioration of mental health.
MR: What are some mental health issues that are prevalent during the school year and why?
Dr. A: Predominantly, feelings of stress, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. Teens will say they feel like they are drowning in responsibilities, tasks, emotions and social situations. Stress increases exponentially at the onset of the school year, due to social and academic pressures.
MR: What can we do to promote mental health well-being in our children?
Dr. A: Viewing physical health and mental health on similar, parallel tracks can be useful.
We all know that there are many behaviors that help us maintain good physical health, such as washing our hands, taking vitamins, eating fruits and vegetables, getting exercise, getting our vaccinations.
Similarly, there are many behaviors have been shown to help with maintaining good mental health.
These include being able to name and talk about our emotions with trusted adults, engaging in exercise, spending time with friends, engaging in meaningful activities or hobbies, and sitting down to dinner 3-4 times a week with family members.
We also know that not getting enough sleep will negatively affect emotional regulation in kids and teens, so 8-9 hours of sleep is strongly recommended. Kids and teens also need down time to reset and recharge.
It’s the chronically over-scheduled and stressed-out teens that are at high risk for mental health deterioration.
Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.