When my teenagers were younger, I pulled up to the curb one day to drop them off at school. My oldest, who was always full of energy, jumped out of the car, gave me a quick hug and was off like a shot to meet his friends.
But my daughter, who was in 1st grade at the time, just sat there. Her eyes welled up with tears (for the third time that morning). She’d been asking to stay home all morning. When I told her she was fine and she’d be feeling better once she got there, she said she wouldn’t be.
I thought by the time we got there, she would have seen I was right and have followed her brother into school like she usually did, excited to start her day with her teacher and friends.
But I was wrong. She didn’t move and after I told her to hurry up, she said,”I can’t go. I can’t go to school. I’m so tired, Mommy. I don’t want to go.”
Her nose was drippy and her crocodile tears slid into her snot and she wiped it with her mitten and wouldn’t even look up at me. I knew she was in no shape to be at school for 6 hours, so I didn’t make her go that day.
She wasn’t physically sick — no fever or signs of a virus. She said nothing hurt, and ate a normal breakfast that morning. But, according to her, she “just really needed to stay home,” and that’s what we did — we stayed home and took a mental health day.
I felt a little guilty, wondering if I should have made her go to school anyway, since she came to life after watching Shrek while eating Italian wedding soup. Then she took a power nap on the carpet and spent the rest of the afternoon playing in her room. I worried that I was setting a bad precedent and she’d want to skip school all the time.
But all my guilt and worries faded away the next morning when she came downstairs extra early — dressed in hot pink tights, a red skirt, and a bright yellow top — eager to get to school.
Ever since that day, I’ve allowed my kids to take mental health days from school when they and I see fit. I’ve never told them that, of course — otherwise they’d request one every other week — but as their mom, I reserve the right to keep them home if I feel like they need it.
Not only do I have three kiddos and I’m always more than ready to soak up that one-on-one time that I’m otherwise unable to give enough of, I think about how many times in my life I’ve felt off but I wasn’t sure why. I know now as an adult when I need to take a breather — a day off to just be because my mental health depends on it — and I am better because of it. It’s an easy cure for something that can feel pretty tough to get through.
Our kids are no different. They have days when the world feels like it’s too much and they can’t quite put their finger on it, and aren’t able to express to you in words what they need.
Allowing them mental health days shows your kids you trust them to know what’s best for them. It also teaches them to listen to their mind and body and learn how to tell the difference between needing to push through something, and needing to take a real break.
Maybe they aren’t showing physical signs of being sick, but they absolutely do get mentally run down and need a day to recharge.
I know many parents and experts agree with this philosophy. Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD and contributor to US News writes, “1 in 5 kids ages 13 to 18 have a mental health disorder.” We adults often think our kids don’t have that much on their plate so they shouldn’t have to keep their mental health in check, but they need to learn coping strategies too.
Hartstein supports mental health days and says if your kids are showing some of the following signs, it may be a good time to let them take a personal day: depression, overwhelm, frustration, isolation, avoiding school and/or school work.
Hartstein goes on to say, “A mental-health day needs to be about re-energizing and focusing on relaxing and regrouping.” So let your child lead their day off with some healthy unwinding so they build up the energy to get back in the game.
I will always let me kids take mental health days if it’s obvious they are in need of one. Sure, we feel like every time we turn around they have a day off — but they are kids and sometimes those allotted days still aren’t enough and all they need to feel like their old selves again is one single day.
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