1. Be proactive
Whether your student is starting kindergarten or high school, there are plenty of ways to be proactive. Martini says a lot of anxiety for students comes from the unknown, so help guide them through the steps — sometimes literally.
“Give the child the opportunity to walk around the school grounds,” he says. “If you’re talking about kindergartners…if there’s a play area adjacent, get used to being around the building.”
If you don’t have early access to the school grounds, it may be helpful to view a street view map on your phone or computer. Get them used to talking about lessons or recess. Ask them what they want to eat for lunch. The more questions, Martini says, the more real it becomes: “What are they excited about? What are they looking forward to?”
Athletics and arts programs can also help. Even if students are nervous about the classroom, he says, getting them to identify other aspects of school life they’re passionate about can relieve academic stress and provide students with outlets to express themselves.
2. Ask about good and bad
Asking questions is the best way to understand how students are doing. But for older students in particular, if you only ask about the good stuff, you might not get the full picture.
“When you talk to your student, ask him what’s going well, but also be very clear and ask him what’s wrong,” says Nathaan Demers. He is a clinical psychologist in Denver and helps run YOU in College, an app designed to connect students with mental health resources. He says, don’t be afraid to ask your kids tough questions – also ask them about the challenges they are facing.
Demers tells parents: Pay special attention to how you phrase questions. Using “what” instead of “why” can remove any hint of accusation. This gives students the opportunity to open up about their feelings and relieves the pressure some students feel to have a good time.
For example, you might want to ask “What’s wrong?” instead of “Why don’t you appreciate [school]?’ “
3. Keep an eye out for behavior changes
“One thing that can admittedly be difficult,” Demers acknowledges, is that “a lot of the common signs of the onset of mental health symptoms are largely those of major transitions.”
Things like changes in sleep, increased irritability, increased weight gain, or changes in appetite can signal to clinicians that there may be an underlying problem. But for incoming students, he adds, “a lot of these things can naturally happen…with students leaving home for the first time.”
There’s no perfect answer, so Demers says to trust your instincts. “Parents know their children better than anyone,” and often they can sense when something is wrong. “There’s a difference between, ‘Oh, my son or my daughter is having a tough day or a tough week’ and ‘something is wrong’.”
For younger students, one of the most common warning signs is irritability toward school or teachers, says Martini of the University of Utah. He notes that for younger students, irritability towards teachers is a recent trend in classrooms. “Particularly when it comes to young children, there is a tendency to blame teachers and principals for some of the challenges they face,” he says.
4. It’s not just COVID
The rise in anxiety and mental health issues is not solely the result of the pandemic. The number of college students struggling with mental health issues has been rising for years, says Sarah Lipson, assistant professor of public health at Boston University. She helps lead an annual survey hundreds of colleges across the country to get a better picture of student mental health.
“You wouldn’t look at a bar chart and say, you know ‘what started happening in the spring of 2020? ” ” she explains. “That’s not the case. Rather, we see this gradual but problematic trend that has continued through COVID.”
According to his department’s survey, the number of students with mental health issues first increased in the 2015-2016 school year and has been rising ever since.
While the past two years have been particularly difficult, Lipson says not to downplay students’ feelings when explaining them because of the pandemic. During an academic year where there is a push towards normalcy, some students may not be ready to return to their normal activities.
Lipson says to keep an eye out for these particular students: “One of the strongest specific symptoms we see – it’s also the strongest predictor of students dropping out – and that’s a lack of interest in their usual activities.”
5. Help out
Parents can help by identifying the problem and suggesting solutions. Ultimately, resources are out there to help students of all ages cope with their mental health, but the daunting task of finding the right one can drive students away.
“If you cut your finger now,” Demers says. “You know to go to the emergency room. But often when students have changes in their appetite, not sleeping or feeling more frustrated, often students don’t know that [those are] signs of depression or anxiety.”
All of the experts we spoke with recommend that parents be aware of the resources available and be prepared to step up to help their children find the help they need.