Ever since my son started school, I’ve reminded him every now and then that if he ever needed to take a mental health day to unwind from the stresses of school, he could. There have even been a few times over the years that I’ve suggested he take one. But my son is a perfectionist at heart, and the idea of tarnishing his near-flawless attendance record usually makes him wince. So he never took me up on the offer.
This year, though, has been different. Fifth grade — the last year of elementary school for my son — has been difficult. I’m not sure if it’s just that tween-hood is striking him hard right now, or the fact that everyone at school is constantly talking about middle school and how much harder it’s going to be once he gets there. But it’s been one of those seasons of life where everything seems to be crashing down on him like a ton of bricks.
And so, a few weeks ago, my son requested a mental health day for the first time ever.
To be honest, when he first asked, I was actually hesitant. I suddenly felt worried that he might just be running away from his problems. I also wondered if he would somehow take advantage of it in the future. And what about the practicalities for the day? Would he just spend it like a zombie on the couch playing video games? And what about that epic to-do list I had in front of me? Would I even be able to get through it if he stayed home for the day?
As much as I supported the idea in theory, when it was actually presented to me, right smack in the middle of a busy afternoon, I wasn’t so sure anymore. But after I turned it over in my mind for a while, and discussed it with my husband, I decided to give it a go. And let me tell you: It turned out to be the best thing ever. For both of us.
First, I set a few ground rules. He needed to let me get my work done, though I told him he could hang out with me as I worked in my office (which, truth be told, is actually my bed: I work from home). I told him that he would play video games for one hour during the day, but that if this was truly going to be a day that we focused on his mental health, we needed to think of things that would nourish his soul, help him work through his stress, and just generally make him feel better.
After he argued with me for a bit about how video games would do all three of those things (nice try, kid), he was willing to sit down and make a list with me. Together, we jotted down the things he enjoys most in his life outside of school — what truly defines him and makes him who he is — which was a pretty fantastic thing to do in and of itself.
We also spent some time talking about mental health in general — what that means and why it’s important to pay attention to it and nurture it. I did most of the talking on this one, but I do think he got it. (I mean, there were only about two or three major eye-rolls.)
He was even able to come up with quite a few activities besides playing video games that excited him. Things he felt would be restorative. It was good timing, actually, because his dad’s birthday was coming up, and we had some surprises to come up with for him. My son was most excited about working on a surprise birthday video, and some questions for a surprise family trivia game that he and our extended were cooking up.
For most of the day, my son did his own thing, only stopping into my room a few times to excitedly tell me what he was working on next or to run ideas for the trivia game by me. At one point, he had some homework to finish, and he got right into bed with me where I was working, and we snuggled while we each got our work done. We ate lunch together, and then — finally — I let him unwind with some video games while I finished things up and picked his little brother up from school.
It was a good, affirming day for my son. And somehow, going forward, it was like magic for him.
He still isn’t in love with 5th grade, but he seems a whole lot less stressed about it; just kind of accepting it for what it is, and enjoying what he can. And he hasn’t asked for another mental health day since — he gets that these sorts of things have their purpose and aren’t meant to be abused.
I know that with our busy schedules as parents, it’s not always feasible (or even logistically possible) for us to let our kids take off from school unless they’re sick. But it’s so important for us to recognize that our kids’ socio-emotional lives need just about as much care and consideration as their physical ones. That doesn’t always mean that we let them take off from school when they’re stressed. But it does mean that we pay attention and help them navigate through that stress by letting them breaks or reducing their jam-packed schedules.
Making our kids’ mental health a top concern isn’t just an option; we need to heed the call. The New York Times recently reported that teens are dealing with more angst and anxiety than ever before. They’re anxious about grades, keeping up with extra-curricular activities, getting into college, fitting in, bullying … and they’re overwhelmed with the fear of failure, or not living up to their potentials.
Even more alarming is a sharp increase in the number of teen suicides over the past few years. Experts are still trying to pinpoint the exact cause, but all agree that parents (and everyone who interacts and cares for kids) need to focus on mental health as much as possible. We need to take a preemptive approach to it, helping them de-stress well before before things fly out of control.
Sometimes that means meeting with a school counselor or taking your child to a therapist. Sometimes it means spending a Saturday afternoon together for some much-needed quality time. Sometimes it means ice cream and a movie after school. And sometimes, it means letting your kid play hooky from school for a day to re-charge.
Either way, it’s about listening to your child, trusting your instincts, showering them with love and kisses, and understanding that it’s hard to be a kid these days. Taking their mental health seriously might just be the best thing you could ever do for them as their parent.