Health officials promote open communication as kids return to school


With school starting within the next weeks, health officials are cautioning parents to create open lines of communication with their children to help find the sources of stress that often impact children as they start a new year.

With a new classroom, classmates, or an entirely new school, students face a lot of stress as they find their place in a new environment, said Amber Olson, the regional director of behavioral health clinical operations for Memorial Behavioral Health.

“Parents need to acknowledge that starting a new year is stressful, whether it’s a new building, classroom or teacher,” Olson said.

With the start of the year, Olson said, students may show some mood or behavioral changes as they adjust, and parents need to find a healthy way to address those changes without undermining what the child is feeling.

“When there are some behavioral changes, parents need to be kind and understanding,” Olson said. “Kids need to know that any communication is safe and they won’t receive statements of judgment.”

A child should be able to tell their parent if there is a problem or a concern without judgment, Olson said.

To improve communication, Olson suggested asking open-ended questions, more than just ‘how was school?’ She suggested questions such as, “What was the best thing that happened to you today?” and “What was the worst thing?”

In addition to the open communication, it is important that parents make sure their children are getting enough sleep and food to eat, Olson said.

“When you are better rested or better fed, it helps us to tolerate stress,” Olson said.

According to kidshealth.org, preschool-age kids (ages 3-5) need from 10 to 13 hours of sleep, including naps. Kids ages 6 to 13 should get between nine and 12 hours of sleep, with 14- to 17-year-olds getting from eight to 10 hours a night.

For the best sleep, the site suggests setting a standard bedtime and setting a good bedtime routine, such as washing up and brushing teeth, reading a book, or listening to quiet music.

This routine shouldn’t deviate much, including weekends, when bedtime and wake-up times should be within an hour of the normal weekday times.

Though communication is the first step, Olson said, some behaviors have to be addressed, especially if it is an issue of safety.

Positive reenforcement is one of the primary ways to help change behavior. An example would be finding positive rewards for children to get out of bed.

“For example, if you get up on time and ready without a problem, when you get home, or when I get off work, we’ll go for a walk together, or something,” Olson said. “It doesn’t always have to be to purchase something. Then, once that is established, you can increase it to if you get up correctly for the next three or four days, we’ll go to the park.”

When it does come to a negative consequence, parents should use caution, Olson said..

“Even if there is a negative consequence, children still need joy, so you shouldn’t take everything away,” Olson said. “So just take one thing. For example, if you take a phone, but nothing else. Make it something enforceable that won’t make both you and (your) kid miserable.”

Parents also shouldn’t take away anything that has life impacts, such as sports, where kids are learning life lessons and getting exercise, she said.

For parents or children who are having problems dealing with stress or other issues, there is an emotional support line available through which anyone can seek advice or help, Olson said. The number to the Memorial Emotional Support Line is 217-588-5509.

“Sometimes it helps to talk to a completely objective person,” Olson said.

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