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Does your child need a mental health day?

It’s Monday morning, the alarm goes off but you can barely roll out of bed. Finally, you shrug off your blankets, and walk down the hall to wake your kids for the start of a new week. Even though they’re only in elementary school, you can see the dark circles under their eyes, and when you tell them it’s time to get ready for the day they groan and ask if they can stay home.

Should you let your children skip school for mental health days, particularly during coronavirus? According to experts, the answer is not a simple yes or no.

What is a mental health day, anyway?

“It’s important that we really define what we mean by a ‘mental health day,’ ” says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist. “The term is used so widely for adults and it can mean anything from feeling tired and needing to sleep in, to feeling stressed and needing time away from the office, to dealing with a non-work situation (like divorce or a sick relative).” 

It’s all of those things, and more. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it a day that an employee takes off from work in order to relieve stress or renew vitality. Traditionally, it’s a term that’s only been used for adults—the assumption being that school puts less mental pressure on kids than the average work day.

This year, thanks to the global COVID-19 pandemic, children are experiencing more stress and anxiety about school than ever. So much so, that they might need to take days off to help. It’s important to understand the unique stressors of the year, and how to recognize the signs that your child needs a mental break. 

Why would a student need a mental health day from school? 

Children experience worry, anxiety, and fear about getting sick or dying from COVID-19, just like adults—and on top of that, the daily routines that structured their lives are disrupted. Children have to socially distance from friends and extended family, often can’t attend school in person, and may be exposed to even more stress from learning to use remote learning platforms—or spending all day with parents who are trying to work from home while parenting at the same time. Young children, especially, may struggle to process all of this change, according to the World Health Organization. They may be grieving missed birthday parties, life milestones, or going on a yearly family vacation.

While it’s still too early to know the true impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health, one study conducted in China concludes that children experienced increased anxiety and depression during the outbreak. Yet, your kids might not be going in for their normal well-child checkups this year, to avoid exposure to COVID-19. That affects their access to mental health care, making it all the more important that parents are attentive to their children’s mental health, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

You know your own child best, and whether a day off will help them or make things more difficult. According to Klapow and Mandal, some signs that your child may need a mental health day from school include: 

  • Seeming overwhelmed, stressed, worried, or anxious
  • Dealing with changes at home, like divorce or a sick relative
  • Acting more irritable and angry
  • Experiencing bodily pains, like stomach pains and headaches
  • Sleeping issues, like insomnia or waking up too early
  • Being clingy at home
  • Changing appetite

While some kids may need a full day off, other children might benefit from simply sleeping in and going to school a bit late, or taking a half day, says Klapow.

Does my child need a mental health day from online school? 

School days look different depending on your location this year. Some students are attending school full-time and others are learning virtually at home. If students are at home all day, do they really need a mental health break?

“Even those children who are going to school remotely are experiencing stress,” says Dr. Mandal. In some cases, it could potentially be worse than in-school stressors. Students can experience what’s commonly known as “zoom fatigue.” It takes more energy to stay focused on a lesson without a classmate to catch you up if you get distracted, and to resist the lure of checking social media without a teacher physically present to supervise. On top of that, having to make constant, sustained eye contact to show that you’re paying attention is draining—and uncomfortable for many children, especially those with learning challenges or existing anxiety.

Add to that the anxiety of using a new platform that kids have likely never had to navigate before. It can cause worries about how competent they appear to their peers, or their teachers. Or, it can expose inequalities in resources, access to connectivity, or home life that students couple previously more easily hide. Dr. Mandal recommends parents allow their children to take a mental health day away from virtual school, if they can. You can also take these steps to help alleviate stress around virtual learning:

  • Schedule breaks: Give your child set times to get up and move around, even if it’s just time to dance to one song on their Spotify playlist. It can get their blood moving and reset their attention span.
  • Ask kids to share their worries: Talking to you, or a friend, about how nerve-wracking virtual learning can be can help to ease the burden. It may also be appropriate to discuss your child’s need for a break with the teacher or school guidance counselor so that they can be a partner in your child’s mental wellness.
  • Get training: Ask your child’s teacher for additional resources on how to use the platform. Chances are they just learned how to use it to, and have access to training.
  • Arrange for virtual accommodations: Request that your child is allowed to turn the camera off for two minutes per session.

These simple steps might alleviate some stress before a whole day off is required. In other words, total burnout is preventable.

RELATED: 4 ways to deal with Zoom anxiety

How to help your child take a mental health day

Mental health days should be part of the equation for children this year,” says Soma Mandal, MD, of Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. “With so much stress and anxiety related to COVID-19, it’s a good and quick way to give a child a break. Kids will also learn about taking care of themselves.”

Some states now include legislation that protects students who require a day off for mental health reasons. Oregon allows five mental health days in a three month period, while Utah says that mental health and cold and flu symptoms are both permissible reasons for a day off of school. Parents should notify schools if their child will be absent, and help their child with any required catch-up work.

 Taking a mental health day from school can look different among students, depending on the age of the child and their reason for needing a day off. Klapow suggests that children not watch TV all day, or remain plugged in and isolated, but rather find connection in time spent together and rest. 

Some suggestions for a meaningful mental health day include:

  • Sleeping in and resting throughout the day
  • Reading, playing with toys, or crafting
  • Playing in the yard, or going for a walk, hike, or bike ride
  • Spending quality time with a parent, sibling, grandparent, guardian, or pet
  • Baking or doing something special with a family member
  • Watching a movie or playing video games together, but not all day

“Mental health days are a day of mental rest. If they are not giving your child the break they need, your child needs a more formal intervention provided by a mental health professional,” says Klapow. 1 in 5 children and youth have an emotional, behavioral, or mental health disorder that is diagnosable, says the Armstrong Center for Medicine and Health. The good news is that after a diagnosis, there are effective treatments for most anxiety and depressive disorders from therapy to medication.

If you think that might be the case for your child, start by talking to the guidance counselor at the school. For additional resources, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.  If your child or anyone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the nearest emergency room.

When is taking a mental health day not the answer? 

Mental health days are valuable ways to manage stress, low moods, and anxiety, but they aren’t always the best option.

“If there are any struggles a child is having at school, avoidance by not going to school is not the answer,” says Dr. Mandal, who advises that parents, teachers, and students work together to address the issue — for example, a test they feel unprepared for, or schoolyard drama that they’re avoiding. You’re well-versed in recognizing when your child is faking sick to get out of going to school. Use those skills to help determine if kids really need the day off for a mental reprieve, or if they just don’t feel like working.

Klapow recommends that parents ensure they aren’t outwardly displaying their own COVID-related stress and anxiety about school, because children will feed off of their stress, which could introduce new worries to the student.

Mental health days should be rare, and should be driven by outward signs of distress, coupled with some precipitating situation,” says Klapow. Teaching your child to excel in school is important, but so is teaching them to manage their emotional health—and know when a reset is needed. If your child has a particularly hard week academically, experiences a trauma at home, or has a falling out with an important friend all that overwhelm can merit a day off to reset.