Back-to-School is an Opportunity for a Healthy Outlook

With summer beach pleasures still at their peak, back-to-school is not something most of us want to think about. But, like it or not, every sandy, sun-filled afternoon brings us one day closer to the inevitable. But the annual trek back to the classroom is more than just books, clothes and transportation. Many parents will face issues with their kids involving academics, focus and concentration—especially after a fun-filled, leisurely summer. Will your child pay attention in class? Will he behave? Will she learn? Will he embarrass you, or make you proud?

We hear a lot today about mental health, and kids are no exception. Can they become depressed, for example? Are there signs that parents should look for? And how can you tell the difference between genuine psychological concerns, and simple laziness?

Occasional depression and other emotional issues—rejection, disappointment, and frustration, to name a few—are part of life, and can happen any time of the year. But unpleasant emotions should always be the exception, not the rule. If your child, or any loved one, is sad or down more often than not, then there’s obviously a cause for concern. But I urge parents (and their teachers and physicians) not to rush to apply mental health labels, and all the counterproductive excuses that sometimes go along with them. As a mental health professional, I have learned that even well intentioned labels often become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Mental health labels can sometimes be intimidating. Relatively recent expressions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; Conduct Disorder; or Oppositional-Defiant Disorder are only a few examples. In spite of the medical ‘ring’ of these somewhat unapproachable terms, parents need to remember that none of these things are diseases in the usual sense of the word. They’re almost never entirely physical problems over which the child has no choice or control. Frequently, in fact, they are behavioral problems related to any number of factors, including stress, personality and/or environment. They are problems that require solutions, but solutions that are not purely medical (if they were, a couple of trips to the pediatrician, and a prescription or two, would clear everything up). Most often, the solutions are a mixture of talking things out (maybe with the help of a counselor); positive incentives coupled with rational punishments; and simply more quality time together.

The media often grossly oversimplifies what’s really going on inside a child’s mind. For example, some mental health experts will maintain that your child suffers from ‘depression,’ or ‘attention-deficit disorder,’ and that all he needs is ‘treatment,’ as if the solution were as simple and passive as a remedy for the flu or setting a broken bone. It almost never is.

It’s also tempting to expect teachers and medical professionals to take over the responsibility for important aspects of raising a child. While it’s true that they can be excellent, even crucial, supplements to the raising of your child, even the best ones can never be substitutes. Children flourish when they receive attention, moral and intellectual guidance, and a sense that life is wonderful and full of happy possibilities. Parents are in the most powerful position to provide this. Why? Because kids spend most of their time with their parents, and naturally rely on them to communicate—mostly through example—what life is all about.

Many of today’s rushed, stressed-out households have a hard time providing much of anything beyond video games and trendy clothing. These things are fine, but they’re not what is really needed to raise a child. Families need to make time to eat meals together, talk together about events of the day, and think and plan long-range together. You can’t put a price tag on these activities, and you can’t excuse away their absence by coming up with a complicated-sounding psychiatric label. Young children will not develop a happy and confident sense of life unless adults consistently communicate it through language and behavior. Pills can’t accomplish this. Time, effort, and concern will.

Children must be shown that their minds and thinking skills, not cool backpacks and iPods, are the most crucial components of self-esteem and happiness. Even the best teachers can’t completely tackle this responsibility. Sometimes teachers, parents and psychologists can actually undercut a child’s intellectual needs by labeling him and walking on eggshells around him–providing the child with the perfect excuse to dodge any responsibility he may find distasteful.

If you supply the kind of psychological, emotional and intellectual ‘climate’ your child requires, the rest (including mental health) will usually follow. Psychologists and other mental health professionals cannot provide quick fixes. They can, however, offer ideas and support to lend a hand with the complex and demanding job of being a parent.