One mom explains why she lets her kids occasionally take "mental health" days off from school.

young girl taking a personal day
Credit: screensolutions/Shutterstock 

You might call me crazy. (You wouldn't be the first.) But sometimes I let my kids stay home from school even when they're not sick. Before you call child services, this is not a regular occurrence. My kids don't get to take every second day off school just because they feel like it (or want to play the Xbox all day). In fact, it happened only three times during the last school year.

Why shouldn't children be able to take a personal day occasionally? They might be exhausted. They might be feigning sickness. Both my kids love school, so if they pretend to be sick or don't want to go, I know something's up. They might just need a day at home with their mom—a day away from a classroom of other kids, playground dramas, and peer pressure.

It helps that I work from home, so I can deal with a child off school without any major disruption to my schedule (or anyone else's). During these personal days—or "mental health" days, as I call them—we have rules: No screens, an adequate amount of fresh air, healthy food before treats. This is not a sleepover. However, we do sometimes grab a duvet and bed down on the sofa to watch movies. It's all about de-stressing, chilling out, and not having to make any important decisions or worry about anything that can wait until tomorrow.

I don't have concerns about my children's mental health. For co-parented kids, they're secure and happy. They're physically healthy and doing well at school. But that doesn't mean they don't need a mental health checkup. As someone who does have long-term mental health issues, perhaps I'm more attuned to their mental and emotional needs. For me, paying attention to my kids' mental health is just as important as getting them vaccinated against disease and treating them for physical ailments. It doesn't always result in a day off school. It might be saying no to a play date, or having a weekend of downtime instead of cramming 15 activities into 48 hours.

I believe that for a child who is generally happy and healthy, taking a personal day can be a positive thing. I don't use the day to treat something that's "wrong" with my child; I use it as a time for reflection. It's a breather, not an escape, from life, and only one of many steps I take to keep my kids' mental health on track.

Having said all that, I'm not so single-minded that I won't listen to anybody else. So I was interested to hear some expert views.

"Keeping kids home for a mental health day is sticky business," said Rachel Kazez, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of All Along, which promotes education about mental health. "One of the main reasons to keep a kid home for physical illness is to help them recover faster and to prevent the transfer of contagious infections. A mental health day is often about neither of those. On the positive side of a mental health day, kids learn a healthy skill of setting boundaries, learning their limits, saying no, and self-care. These skills can all help prevent mental illness. That being said, 'grit' is an interesting factor as well, often studied about how it relates to young adults and school. Keeping a kid in school regardless of them feeling tired or overwhelmed helps with grit, the drive to persevere, and distress tolerance. And all of these are key life skills that help with career and academic success as well as help prevent mental illness."

Kazez suggested that for elementary school kids, who rely on their parents to teach them to set boundaries and deal with distress, "being supportive but insisting they go to school is often the right choice." She also warned against keeping kids off school with the aim of making their struggles go away, recommending showing affection and support while still teaching them how to cope with those struggles—which may include going to school when they're not feeling into it.

"Consider what it does for the kid to stay home," she said. "Is it really about them not being able to go to school, or is this the way that they get some time with you, time away from siblings, a feeling of freedom from responsibility, etc.? Explore how you can help them meet that desire without missing school or other responsibilities. If you keep enough healthy structure the rest of the time, something like allowing them not to make their bed one morning can be enough to meet the desire. There is nothing wrong with missing one day of school, but it is usually not just about not going to school that day. Exploring the issue leads to a better overall result for your child."

Licensed clinical social worker Bethany Raab agreed that kids shouldn't miss school arbitrarily, but acknowledged that mental health days can offer benefits, provided parents are prepared to guide the day's events to make it truly beneficial.

"These days can be useful to rest, recuperate, or even catch up on school work," said Raab. "It is important to strike a balance between rest/relaxation and really utilizing the day to help them bolster their mental wellness. Sitting around and watching TV/YouTube or playing video games all day is unlikely to have much of a positive impact on your child's health and wellness. Some ideas to consider for a mental health day include extra sleep (sleeping in and/or a nap), a good breakfast and lunch, some sort of exercise (like a walk with Mom or Dad), reading, journaling, coloring, crafts, some homework time (catching up or getting ahead), and meaningful conversation between parent and child."

Too many people don't know how to make self-care a priority. Of course, I want my children to work hard and learn how to overcome obstacles. I also want them to know that they have permission to take time out when it's needed. Hopefully that's something they'll take with them into adulthood and live a happier, healthier life because they look after their minds just as much as their bodies.