Make your child’s mental health a focus of back-to-school season

The countdown to school can become all about clothes, supplies and schedules, but it may be more important to make sure your student is emotionally ready for a return to class.

A well-child visit can help find the answer.

“You may think of your child’s annual checkup for things like vaccines, but it’s also a good place to check in on their mental health,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare. “Getting advice in a fall visit may help prevent problems later in the school year.”

Dr. Randall says a well-child visit is an opportunity for a conversation with your child’s doctor about any behavioral changes you may have noticed.

Before an appointment, focus on your child’s overall disposition — not just what they’re saying — for a reading on how they’re handling the return to school.

Here’s a short list of things to watch for:

  • Persistent sadness

  • Avoidance of social interactions
  • Bouts of extreme irritability
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Sleep problems
  • Frequent ailments like headaches or stomachaches
  • Concentration problems
  • Changes in academic performance

Ask your child’s primary care doctor for guidance on how best to support your child. You may be able to help with mild bouts of emotional issues, but if any intensify and persist to the point of disrupting your child’s daily life, you’ll want to involve expert support — and sooner rather than later.

“It’s critical to seek professional help, when necessary,” Dr. Randall said. “This is especially true if a child is behaving uncharacteristically for extended periods.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Randall suggests these at-home steps for easing general stress that may surface in the transition back to class:

1. Create routines – What time does the family sit down for dinner? When is “lights out” at night? What time do alarm clocks ring? The answers are important. Sticking to schedules can create consistency at home that may help your child feel more confident, secure and stable.

2. Set online limits – Teens may tell you that social media helps them feel connected, but too much of it may cause stress and anxiety. To help limit social media use, consider creating family rules around when and where it’s OK to be on it. For instance, “no screen-time rules” could be in effect:

– During meals

– In bedrooms

– After 9 p.m.

– Until homework is done

3. Be a good listener – School-aged kids like their space, but make sure your child knows they can come to you anytime with questions or to share their feelings. If they do talk about being scared or nervous, validate their feelings. Help them feel secure and let them know it’s possible to feel better.

“Remember these can be sensitive topics for your child,” Dr. Randall said. “Empathy, openness and patience can go a long way in helping them feel heard and optimistic that they’ll be OK.”

One last thing: Your student may be watching how you are readying for the school year, so model good behavior. Make this a “do as I do” moment. Eat right, exercise and get the sleep you need to stay positive, even during hectic times. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says coping with stress in a healthy way can boost resilience.

For more information on mental health resources for children, visit