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A parent's guide to mental health as school starts back up

Young people are under serious pressure right now, but parents can help.

Back-to-school shopping, last-minute plans... it's a busy time of year for parents and kids. 

But there's one important thing experts say shouldn't be left behind in the rush: Your child's mental health. The topic may be daunting, but the conversations don't need to be. 

"You can start teaching that emotional intelligence very early on, and it will help them the rest of their lives," said Dr. Linda Drozdowicz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and Yale associate professor. 

The CDC says about 9.4% of kids ages 3 to 17 had diagnosed anxiety from 2016 to 2019 — about 6 million. About 4.4%, or 2.7 million, had diagnosed depression. 

Recent events are putting serious pressure on young people: The CDC says in 2021, more than a third of high school students said they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic.

RELATED: Back-to-school with COVID-19 variants and monkeypox outbreaks

Here's what to know as the kids in your life head back to school. 

Start the conversation early

Mental health is a broad topic, and younger kids won't understand all of it. But it's never too early to talk about emotions — including negative ones. 

"It's easy to talk about the happy emotions, and that comes naturally to us," Drozdowicz said. "But it is just as important, or I would argue more important, to talk about the negative feelings and name them. Because once we name something it becomes much less scary."

Parents can normalize mental health conversations early on by acknowledging their own emotions and coping strategies. 

Dr. Christine Crawford, the associate medical director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said parents can explain in simple terms what they do to calm down: "When I feel angry, Mommy does this. And it looks like this. And these sort of things help reduce my anger: I like to talk to your dad, I like to exercise."

Parents can then ask how their child feels when they're angry, and what might help. The conversation can build as kids get older, Crawford said. The key is to keep listening.

Signs to watch out for

It's normal for teens to be moody and withdraw from their families. However, there are common signs that something bigger could be going on -- like withdrawing from their friends and being uninterested in activities that they used to love. 

"If your child is keeping to themselves, they're just staying in the room, they're not engaging with you, or with their friends, then that's certainly reason to be concerned about what's going on," Crawford said.

Other signs of a potential problem are slipping grades and hygiene issues. 

OTHER NEWS: Students are facing a mental health crisis as they return to classrooms

If you notice new behavior that makes you concerned, it's time for another conversation. Crawford recommends commenting on the behavior and listening to what your teen says. 

"For example, if you notice that your kid is not hanging out with their friends as often as they used to, you could say to them, 'Well, I noticed that your friends have been stopping by the house lately trying to get you to come out. You haven't been all that interested. I wonder what do you think is going on with that or what's behind that.'" 

From there, parents and teens can talk about ideas that might help. For instance, a child who's very anxious about going to a new school might feel better if they can visit ahead of time. 

Hearing perspectives from other adults, like teachers and coaches, can also help parents determine whether their kids are struggling.

How to help

"Mental health is part of health," Drozdowicz said. "So the interventions that will help your child feel good and succeed are much less fancy than you think. It's the old school stuff — I sometimes call it grandma wisdom." 

Things as simple as making sure kids get enough sleep — even if you have to set screen time limits — eat nutritious food and get some exercise each day can go a long way toward maintaining their mental health. And keep listening to them.

"If you do get concerned or they get concerned, take it seriously," she said. "You can talk to the school guidance counselor, you can always call the primary care provider to check in and see what resources might be helpful to you or your child."

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