Leona O'Neill: As children head back to school, let's teach the importance of self-care

As children prepare to go back to school, it's important that parents listen to their anxieties and help them to develop the self-care skills they will need to maintain good mental health during times of stress, writes Leona O'Neill...

We need to teach kids about self-care as they head back to school. Picture by Martin Rickett
Leona O'Neill

IT'S back to school week for most of the kids this week and a return to some manner of routine for families.

The last few years have been very strange with regards school, with teachers and students dealing with lockdowns, online learning, masks, social distancing and bubbles. Things feel a lot more positive this time around. Here's hoping it stays that way.

That's not to say that just as normality returns and the excitement over going back to school builds, the anxieties over the same completely disappear.

Some kids are going back to their old school, some are transitioning to big school, some kids are going into nursery and primary school for the very first time. Some of them will find it difficult moving to a new teacher after becoming used to having one who supported and navigated them so well through the pandemic. And some of our kids will be coming to the end of their educational journey in upper years and be worried about the next big move. Some of our kids will also have struggled to adjust after the pandemic and are still facing challenges that will take time to work out.

The pandemic had a major negative impact on most of us adults, and our children are no different. Some of our kids may have missed out on emotional and developmental milestones due to the need to be kept apart, and some are still finding it hard to push back against those strict rules and being allowed and encouraged to come together as we move forward. All of that is OK. We are only human.

It's important for us parents to listen to our kids as this time to return approaches and in the first few weeks of settling in. Every single child will have different concerns. We shouldn't dismiss them – "there's nothing to be worried about, everything will be fine". It's better to acknowledge their fears and help them form a strategy for tackling them, as well as demonstrating a firm confidence that you believe they can overcome them, as this will help them feel more secure and bolster their mental health.

Our children's mental health is just as important as physical health, as any parent with a child struggling with anxiety or panic attacks can attest. If they don't feel 100 per cent mentally, it impacts on every aspect of their lives.

Self-care is a great tool to give our kids, so that they can build up the armour to face anything that life throws at them. It allows them to forge a calm baseline so that bumps on the road don't knock them so badly off course.

Regardless of your child's age, try to incorporate self-care into their day as if it's a completely normal and natural thing. Reinforcement of this will help them know the importance of exercise and fresh air and talking to friends and having things to look forward to, doing things you enjoy and make you feel good.

Through self-care they will come to know the importance of having quiet time to themselves to listen to music, become aware of meditation and yoga and how movement can affect your mood. And they will get to know the importance of reaching out if they are overwhelmed and need a hand. Teaching them to tune into and look after themselves is such an important lifelong gift.

Good mental health is so important. Nurturing it and putting in place practices that allow that to thrive is the responsibility of all of us parents. Giving kids the tools to build resilience and look after themselves well, both mentally and physically, reduce their stress and improve their self confidence is surely one of the greatest lessons we can teach them.

Teaching them to express their feelings freely, without embarrassment, will help them greatly as they embark upon their own journeys in life, not just as they embark on a new school year.

Best of luck to all starting the new school year.