Kids Need Mental Health Days, But Not Every Family Can Afford Them

There are still ways for children to reset even when they can't take a day off. Experts share how you can support your child when they need a break.

Mother hugs son at school while teacher watched with encouragment.

Rob and Julia Cambell / Stocksy

My daughter Mila was 5 years old when her carefree pre-K routine abruptly came to an end with zero closure in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. That fall, she began "hybrid" kindergarten. And finally, we crossed the threshold to first grade with full days of school—but not quite normal school days, thanks to the mask mandate and COVID-19 cases still on the rise.

While Mila definitely rolled with pandemic curveballs way better than I did, there were many bumps. And I was well aware that some of her stress was brought on by my unpredictable freelance schedule and my husband's inconsistent one as a firefighter and paramedic. I tried to ease that guilt by jam-packing our weekends with activities. I realized that was too much as she begged for "lazy Sundays" instead.

But there was one particular weekday morning where I could sense Mila's irritability was more than just her being my "tiny teenager." She needed a day to regroup and relax. Staying home simply was not an option—my husband was already in the middle of a 12-hour shift and my first meeting started promptly after school drop off. I sent a desperate explanatory email to Mila's teacher, and it turned into a game changer. She gave Mila the space she needed that day and sent her home with a personalized book of coping strategies for whenever she felt overwhelmed at home or school.

Mila is now in the second grade, and, while she absolutely loves school, there have been a few days where it may have benefited her to stay home. The good news is many states are now recognizing mental health days as an excused absence. Unfortunately, for me and so many families in similar situations, our work makes it extremely tough to take a break.

"Parents in lower income brackets struggle due to limited access to resources, including jobs that often do not come with a benefit packet that includes insurance, paid time off, and mental health days," says Bethany L. Cook, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and author of For What It's Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0 – 2.

In cases where older students are involved, their own school workload might get in the way of their ability to take a mental health day—a day off from school may end up more overwhelming for them as the assignments pile up.

So how do you support your child's mental health and their needs without the ability to give them a real mental health day? Here are some tips from top experts.

Be Observant of Your Child's Behavior

First and foremost, it's crucial you pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal signs your child might be showing if they're in distress. "If they're having a hard time motivating themselves to get up and go in the morning, or if they're expressing concern or anxiety about the day, they may be struggling, and it's important to encourage them to talk to you," says Crystal Bowyer, president and CEO of National Children's Museum in Washington, DC.

Children of varying ages may present emotions differently. Amy Dohner, an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration in Atlanta, says younger children may present with increased tantrums or come home unable to hold themselves together, while older children and teenagers may appear overwhelmed with emotions. Other things to look out for—no matter the age of your child—include if your child is overcome with sadness, fear, or worry, acts more irritable or angry than usual, complains of stomach aches or other physical pains, has trouble sleeping or eating, and avoids activities they normally enjoy.

When Bowyer tries to guide her own young children, she will physically get down on their level. "That way we are eye to eye when they're speaking to me about important issues like their feelings," she explains. "Medical and educational research has shown this as a best practice for communicating with young children—I can sense how it eases my own son's anxiety."

Validate Your Child's Feelings

Sometimes the simple act of listening is all it takes to set a positive mindset for the day. Bowyer says giving her son something to look forward to—even an after-school walk or game night—makes all the difference. "It is most important you make your child feel heard," she says. "Listen to their concerns so that they know you understand, but also give them something positive to think about."

You can also give your child something tactile to take to school, such as a necklace to wear under their shirt. Dr. Cook explains that it is a way to remind your child of your love while at school. "You can say, 'I know it's not the same as staying home, but it's the best I can do for you today,'" says Dr. Cook.

Build Your Child's Support System

If your child doesn't seem to want to talk to you about their feelings, Dr. Cook suggests asking if there's someone else they would like to talk to, such as a trusted family member, friend or therapist. And at school, she believes it's always nice for a child to have a special "someone," either a teacher or classroom aide they feel safe with. "Encourage your child to let you know who they connect to at school. You should speak to them and let them know your child views them as a 'safe person' and may seek them out if needed."

Outside of school, connect with neighbors and friends who can become trusted "found family" and be an additional support person for you and your child. "It's important to clearly ask for what you need: 'Is there any chance my child could come over to your house after school and you could help them with homework?' 'Would you be willing to collect them from school if needed?” says Dr. Cook.

Of course, if there's a day your child is going to school when a mental health day is needed, contacting your child's teacher is crucial. "It allows teachers to understand why your child may present different behaviors than normal and support them throughout the day," explains Dohner. "Another plus is that teachers can share their observations and thoughts about what may be adding to your child's stress as well as tools or strategies they have observed to help your child."

Create a Routine

Bowyer follows the same routine with her children every night—including a family-wide rule of shutting off electronics nightly from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Her kids also help cook dinner. "Healthy habits have a huge impact on mental health," she explains. "Making sure that your children eat healthy food and exercise—and that you model that same behavior—is key to helping them form long-lasting healthy habits that benefit their physical selves and their mental well-being too."

Another thing to consider adding to your family routine is individual quality time with each child. Older kids, in particular, may not want to sit down and speak with you or another adult about their feelings, but a guarantee of a weekend movie marathon, a visit to an ice cream shop, or a game of catch can make a big difference. Knowing there will be time to connect, even when they don't want to talk, can be an important form of support.

To make self-care and mindfulness a part of your children's lifestyle, you must model it. For younger children, Dr. Cook suggests asking them to join you for morning affirmations, yoga, a walk, or draw them a long bubble bath and sit next to them and chat. "For older kids, ask them to share things they enjoy doing to take care of themselves—then do it together," she recommends.

Encourage Self-Care and Mindfulness

For kids of all ages, Dohner suggests easing in with simple activities such as reflecting on your days or sharing a few things you're thankful for at mealtime. Dohner also recommends creating a dedicated space with a box of calming items that are soothing to the sensory system such as a weighted pillow, stuffed animal, fidget spinners, scratch and sniff stickers, etc. "When you observe your child on the verge of a meltdown, stay calm and encourage them to utilize their space and the items to help regulate their emotions," explains Dohner. "The goal is for your child to eventually recognize on their own when they can use the box to calm down.

Journaling regularly also eases anxiety and keeps emotions at bay. But if writing is a struggle, Dr. Cook recommends encouraging your child to journal in a non-traditional way such as video or audio recordings or drawing in a sketch pad.

Be Kind to Yourself

Overall, the most important thing you can do as a parent? Dr. Cook says it's to cut yourself some slack! "Being a parent is the hardest job and we want what's best for our kids—but basic needs like shelter, food, heat, and water must come first," she explains. "Work to shift your mindset away from guilt to 'I'm doing the best I can with the resources I have right now.'" Remind yourself you're doing your best and piling on the stress won't make you, or your child "feel" any better.

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