There’s a lot you can do at home to keep your children happy at school says Hilary Wilce

Now we are stuck into the new school year, a time for fresh beginnings, in the great tradition of new pencil cases and geometry sets, this is an optimistic column about all the many things we can do to help our children stay happy at school.

Because, although it’s not something anyone wants to think about, there has been more news over the summer about the shocking number of school-age children struggling with depression, anxiety and stress.

The good news though, is that there is also a large body of work about what helps everyone – young people and adults alike – to maintain mental balance. 

First off there are the physical things. It increasingly seems that inflammation plays a part in the development of anxiety and depression, so make sure your child’s body, including their brain, stays healthy by eating well, drinking enough water, getting fresh air and exercise and last, but quite definitely not least, getting the right amount of sleep.

“Good family bonds, a network of friends and links to a wider community”

Then there is the social context you bring your child up in. Good family bonds, a network of family friends and links to a wider community all help children feel anchored, significant and safe. Young people whose only reference points are their friends and peers can be much more vulnerable to worry, insecurity and unstable behaviour.

Other things to encourage in your child are the key attitudes of optimism and hope. This might sound airy-fairy, but these are known to foster good mental health and once you start looking it’s possible to find lots of ways to encourage them, whether it’s through modelling those attitudes yourself, or talking to your children in a positive way about mistakes and challenges.

You can help them see that happy, outward-looking people are popular and attractive and that happiness doesn’t come through having lots of cool stuff, or hundreds of social media followers, but through being comfortable in your own skin, being grateful for what you’ve got, and making the most of your opportunities.

It also helps to have realistic and positive goals and these can be encouraged even in very young children. I’ve been in reception classrooms where children have decided they’d like to be ‘the person I’d like as a friend’ or ‘not to be so cross when I’m woken up for school’.

But vague aims don’t have much clout, so help your child to think their goals through to specific targets. Not just ‘do my homework better’ but ‘make a homework timetable and sit down, without my phone, at six o’clock to do my work, at least three times a week’.

Older children could also be encouraged to start developing a sense of purpose in life, because aiming for something you want to do is said to be another powerfully protective thing against mental health problems. This purpose doesn’t have to be set in stone, but a young person with something specific to aim for is less likely to run into problems than one who only lives for short-term pleasures.

All these things will definitely help children stay strong and stable but, of course, if things are more serious, it is always worth seeking medical attention, and you should talk to your doctor if you are seriously worried about your child’s continuing low mood or worrying behaviour.

Portrait of happy schoolkids looking through dome climber at school playground

Portrait of happy schoolkids looking through dome climber at school playground

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