In recent years, some companies have started encouraging their employees to take mental health, self-care or wellness days off of work. Even companies that don’t officially designate time off for mental well-being may allow workers to use personal days, sick days or other paid time off for such reasons. (And the sad reality is that millions of U.S. workers still don’t have paid sick leave at all.)
Just as adults occasionally need a day off to take care of their mental health, so, too, do kids— a concept that’s been gaining more traction. In 2018, Utah lawmakers expanded the definition of an excused school absence to include mental, as well as physical, illness. The following year, Oregon passed a similar law recognizing mental or behavioral health concerns as valid reasons to miss school. Other states have since followed suit by enacting (or proposing) like-minded measures.
The past year of the pandemic has been tough on all of us, but kids have put up with a lot. They were abruptly thrown into distance learning, isolated from their friends and relatives, unable to participate in extracurricular activities, and forced to adapt to other major changes, all while managing a great deal of uncertainty.
“Now that we are entering a full year since the start of the pandemic, kids are exhausted,” Ann-Louise Lockhart — a pediatric psychologist at A New Day Pediatric Psychology and parent coach — told HuffPost. “Many feel isolated, anxious, bored and depressed. They are feeling fatigued, discouraged and incredibly unmotivated.”
“Although there is value in many messages of perseverance and persistence, we also need to send the message that balance and rest are important.”
Now, kids are faced with a new challenge: returning to the classroom after a year at home. Some children may be excited to resume in-person learning, while others are understandably anxious about getting back to school.
They may worry about getting sick with COVID-19, who they’ll play with or hang out with, or how they’ll catch up on their schoolwork if they’ve fallen behind. Students who got a reprieve from in-person bullying during distance learning may fear they’ll be picked on again, said Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of the upcoming book “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.”
The point is, kids have a lot on their plates and deserve a mental health day as much as anyone — especially right now. Below, child experts explain why it might be a good idea, how to know if your kid needs a day off, and other ways to support them.
The Benefits Of A Mental Health Day
Beyond the obvious benefit of your child getting a much-needed break, parents who grant their kids permission to take care of their mental health are sending some important messages.
For one, it shows that you prioritize self-care — and that they should, too. In a culture that often celebrates working to the point of burnout, reminding your child that it’s OK to slow down is powerful. It signals that you care more about their mental and emotional well-being than you do about external measures of success like grades or other accolades.
“In many families, the message has been to work more, keep going and be strong,” Lockhart said. “Although there is value in many messages of perseverance and persistence, we also need to send the message that balance and rest are important.”
Sometimes kids feel they need to lie to their parents and say they’re physically ill in order to miss school. Encouraging your child to take a mental health day, however, presents an opportunity to have an honest conversation about whatever it is they’re struggling with.
Plus, it gets them in the habit of checking in with themselves on a regular basis instead of only addressing mental health concerns once they reach a boiling point.
“Pausing to take time for mental health and well-being helps to teach children to assess what their difficulties are and to address them accordingly,” said clinical psychologist Cindy T. Graham of Brighter Hope Wellness Center. “Rather than waiting until one is experiencing a full-blown episode of depression, for example, learning to see your early warning signs and implementing appropriate coping techniques is important.”
Signs Your Kid Needs A Mental Health Day
How your child reacts to stress may look different depending on their personality and temperament, Graham said. Some children may verbally express that they’re overwhelmed, anxious or sad — some may be more reserved than usual. Others may show they’re stressed via their behavior; they may become more clingy or dependent on you.
Disinterest or lack of pleasure in hobbies or activities they once enjoyed is one indicator parents can look for. Withdrawing from friends and family is another.
“They are becoming increasingly disconnected from others and isolated from friends, with less of a desire to have meaningful social connections,” Lockhart noted.
You may also observe changes in their usual routines like sleeping too much or too little, or an increase or decrease in appetite.
Differences in their mood can also be signs to look out for.
“You notice more irritability, anger, or low tolerance for frustrating or disappointing events,” Lockhart said.
While giving your child a break from school may provide some short-term stress relief, it won’t help manage mental or emotional health conditions in the long run. If your kid is having a stressful week, that’s one thing. But if they’re exhibiting the above signs over the course of weeks or months, then parents should consider connecting them with a therapist.
“Recurring symptoms of mental health difficulties should be addressed by a licensed clinician to give your child the best chance of learning strategies that will suit them and their situation,” Graham said.
How To Support Your Kid On Their Day Off (And Beyond)
Start by helping your child identify their main sources of stress and come up with some healthy coping strategies together. Graham suggested a few, like journaling, creating a video diary, drawing or writing a poem or song. You might also schedule an appointment with their therapist for them, if they have one.
If you’re able to, consider taking the day off as well and planning an outing or activity together, Lockhart suggested, though that may not always be possible. Either way, be sure to check in with your child during the day to see how they’re feeling.
“Keep questions open-ended and encourage your child to say what’s on their mind in a ‘judgment-free’ zone helps to promote feelings of safety in communicating difficult feelings,” Graham said.
Give your kid permission to rest, recharge and let go of any feelings of guilt they might be experiencing for taking time off. Remind them that a mental health day isn’t about blowing off their responsibilities, Graham said. “It is, in fact, the opposite: Holding your responsibility for caring for your mental and emotional wellbeing.”
Beyond taking the occasional day off, it’s important for parents to regularly build in time to talk about — and tend to — the family’s well-being, Borba said.
“A set family time for daily mental health — to walk, exercise, read, do deep breathing, play in sand, get back rubs, listen to calming music — can be powerful in helping kids recognize that mental well-being — not just GPA and test scores — matter,” Borba said. “Kids can practice those decompressing, coping strategies and identify ones that work for them and then use them the rest of their lives.”