Back to school doesn't have to mean back to stress

Squamish counsellor offers ways to support kids' mental health as activities increase

With children heading back to school this week and most other organized activities starting back up, The Chief reached out to Squamish's Allison Green, a registered clinical counsellor at Grasshopper Counselling for some advice on reducing stress on kids and parents alike.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

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Q: Parents want to help their kids have the most opportunities possible, which is a positive instinct, but if children (thinking pre-teen) are overscheduled, what can result?

A: Think of what we are like as adults when we are overscheduled. We get stressed, have trouble sleeping, often don't eat properly, are irritable. The same results can happen for kids as well, except they may lack the insight to see the connection between their schedules and the resulting behaviour.  Long term, overscheduling just isn't healthy or sustainable, for anyone.

We live in a community that is unique because it generates a lot of high-level athletes. As parents, we often feel the pressure to expose our kids to sports and arts at a really young age to have them be on par with their peers. Challenging kids can be healthy if done right and in moderation.

It is not uncommon to see children have an activity most weeknights after school. For some kids, it works and for others, it's too much. A lot of it comes down to knowing what works for your child and family.

Research has proven that there is so much value in free play  — unstructured, child-initiated play — and that kids these days are getting less of it. Free play gives kids opportunities to problem solve, be creative, use their imagination and learn valuable social skills.

Q: How do you know if your child has too much on her plate? What behaviours should parents watch for?

A: One simple way of knowing if children have too much on their plate is when they tell you repeatedly they don’t want to go to their scheduled activities. Other signs are when you start to see kids who are tired, stressed out — which often shows up in the form of unwanted behaviours — and are irritable.

Q: What do kids gain in terms of their mental health from having complete downtime?

A: As parents, we often scramble to entertain our kids when they complain of being bored. I love hearing children say they are bored because being bored will lead to daydreaming, creativity, imagination and problem solving. They will eventually find something to do that is usually pretty rewarding for them.

Q: We all know children need a good night's sleep, but how does being sleep deprived impact a child's ability to cope with day-to-day stress?

A: Coping with day-to-day stressors becomes even more difficult when sleep deprived. Kids who are sleep deprived have more difficulty regulating their emotions — their tolerance for adversity goes down, their ability to problem solve is reduced, they become more quick to anger or get upset over seemingly small things.

Sleep, diet and exercise are three things that can have a significant impact on our mental health and they are also fairly easy to monitor and control but when they are off it can really have an impact on our mental health. When working with families, I always suggest getting on a pretty solid sleep schedule as a first step to any issues a child is having.

Have a bedtime routine that you follow every day of the week, as much as possible, with the same bedtime and wake-up time whether it's a weeknight or weekend is key.

Q: We all, kids and adults, deal with anxiety and stress every single day, but how do parents know when anxiety has turned to something concerning in terms of a kids fear of going to school?

A: Heading back to school can often be anxiety provoking for kids. It is perfectly normal for children to be anxious about heading back to school or going to school for the first time — especially in those transition years of kindergarten, middle school and then again for high school. Acknowledging your child's nervousness can go a long way to reducing it. Let your child know you understand how they are feeling and that you are there for them. Focus on how excited you will be to see them at the end of the day, rather than focusing on getting them through the door. If kids are extremely nervous about school be sure to let their teacher know so that they can support the child with the transition into the classroom. A big thing is to make sure as parents we have our anxiety about our kids going to school in check. Kids are very perceptive, if we are anxious about them going to school, they will pick up on it and it can result in their anxiety increasing.

Q: What are the signs a child needs professional help dealing with mental health challenges?

A: When considering whether or not to seek mental health for children, some general guidelines are if their behaviours are intense, persist over long periods, interfere with life and are not typical for the child's age. I always encourage parents to ask questions. Talk to your family physician if you are concerned about your child's mental health. You can also connect with Child and Youth Mental Health on one of their intake days or call a mental health clinician. I know most private clinicians in town are happy to have a chat over the phone with parents about their concerns.

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