Are Mental Health Days a Good Idea for Teens?

Sometimes, my own kids will get that look.  They have not been getting nearly enough sleep–between athletics and art and tests–and yes, socializing, they’ve been running on empty for too long.  Since I know they are conscientious and responsible enough to generally manage their time, I will on very rare occasions allow a day off to catch up on sleep and work.  It’s not a sit around and watch Netflix day.  It’s a day to breathe.

That said, there are some real caveats to giving our kids this kind of break.  First, schools do not like it, and it is technically not a legal absence.  Second, if your child is NOT on top of her game generally with schoolwork, the day off can just magnify her problems.  Third, sometimes kids “get that look” of generalized fatigue when something more than mere physical exhaustion is going on.  Social issues, feelings of anxiety at school, can become more than a kid can deal with on his own day after day.  The result is not the need for a day off, but true school avoidance, which can be a very serious issue.

School avoidance is when a teen has such an immense load of anxiety or depression that he literally stops functioning and may refuse to go to school altogether.  Sounds extreme, and it is.  It’s also not an easy problem to fix.  It’s difficult to face as a parent that you cannot actually make a teenager do as you say.  He has to feel he can.

So, when assessing whether a day off is needed, you may want to consider whether more could be going on.  Therapy may be a good option.  Also, hiring a tutor or coach who knows how to deal with anxious kids can be extremely helpful.  Many tutors are young people without much classroom or parenting experience, and they may lack the training, experience and intuition it takes to coax kids back from an intense bout of school-related anxiety.  Anxious/school avoidant kids need compassion, coping skills, validation and the modeling of persevering behaviors.

Validation is a great first step when your kid seems to need a bit of help.  A day off from school can be validating in that it shows we take seriously the stresses of day-to-day performance.  But listening and validating on a daily basis is important in helping kids gain stamina.  Often as parents we are too quick to “fix” whatever is bothering our kids, or we try to minimize real issues, or we lecture about the necessity of hard work.  We react to our own fear of our kids’ potential failure by reaching for our inner “tiger parent.”  But when a kid feels fragile, he does not need tough talk.  He may really just need you to listen.

So, mental health days can be thought of in more general terms than a “day off” from school.  A “day off” from nagging, lecturing, arguing over homework or chores is good for everyone.  Yes, kids need support and structure every day.  But they also need gentleness, quiet, understanding and time to themselves (without us knocking on the door to be sure there’s work being done in there.)  Somedays, instead of worrying if they’re getting it all done, try lighting some candles, putting on some soft music, and letting them simply do the best they can on their own.  That’s a mental health day for everyone.

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