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Why I’m Letting My Kids Take Much-Needed Mental Health Days

We can’t just tell kids we care about their well-being — we have to show it

Published on: November 27, 2019

Teenage girl reading a book

“Our teachers are always telling us to read more for ‘pleasure,’” my daughter Avery recently declared as she plunked her backpack down on the kitchen counter in exasperation. “But when!?” Her sister, huddled over pages of math problems on the couch nearby nodded in agreement. Like most school nights, they had several hours of work still ahead of them.

Sighing, Avery grabbed herself a few slices of salami before plopping down on the couch herself and cracking open the earmarked place in her calendar where she’d written the days’ assignments. It was going to be a long night.

Avery, age 11, is in sixth grade. Her older sister Norah is in eighth.

Just a few months into her middle school experience and Avery has so little free time to rest, relax and recuperate. And it’s not just her. Kids in the United States today are busier, face crushing social pressure, have more academic and extracurricular responsibilities, get less free and outdoor time and sleep significantly fewer hours than their counterparts of a generation ago.

We can’t just tell kids we care about their well-being — we have to show it.

Kids don’t have time to just be kids anymore. So, I’ve decided I’m making time. That’s why I’m letting my daughters ditch school for the days leading up to Thanksgiving this year. Not because we’ve got some exciting trip planned or because we’ve got family in town, but simply because they’re exhausted and overwhelmed. They need a break, so I’m giving them one.

I never thought I’d be the kind of parent who deploys mental health days. In years past, when my kids told me they didn’t feel well, I did what my own mother, a school teacher, did when I was growing up: I checked for telltale physical signs they were actually sick; snotty noses, glossy eyes, a fever. If they seemed physically fine, I’d give them a little pep talk and send them on their way.

But this year, I’ve stopped doing that. I’ve realized when my kids tell me they “don’t feel good,” they mean it — just not in the way I thought they did. They’re sick and they’re tired of the dizzying pace of their school days. As parents and educators, it’s well past time we started listening to them.

Over the past decade, the rate of depression and anxiety has doubled in youths ages 12–17. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among teens. Pediatricians are resorting to writing prescriptions for play! Kids are telling us that they are stressed and burned out. And our response? Longer school days, accelerated classes at younger ages, more specialized extracurricular involvement, and less free and down time.

The other night, Avery and Norah bemoaned their upcoming advisory class, a homeroom-type class where they regroup every day to work on assignments. Advisory is periodically designated as “social-emotional learning” time, which my girls abhor. During this time, kids watch videos and PowerPoint presentations on subjects such as self-care and how to be a good friend. But, if kids don’t actually have the time to get enough sleep or foster relationships, how will a video on taking care of themselves or developing friendships make any difference?

This past spring, three teens in our neighborhood died by overdose and suicide. In response, area residents canvassed neighboring communities with yard signs that read “You matter” and “You are not alone.” It was deeply moving, but I fear it’s not enough. We can’t just tell kids we care about their well-being — we have to show it.

As parents, it can be daunting and anxiety-inducing to consider all the ways our kids are in crisis. It can feel impossible to determine how to fight back against a culture that celebrates constant achievement and involvement. But in my house, we’ll start with a week spent sleeping in, baking cookies, reading books (for fun) and going to the movies — and we’ll go from there.

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