If Your Child Needs To Take a Mental Health Day During Distance Learning, Let Them

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
mother playing with young sons in front of house
MoMo Productions/Getty

It was only 9:30 a.m. and one of my tweens had already had enough with distance learning for the day. Her Zoom call password wasn’t working, she didn’t understand two of the assignments in her daily stack of to-do work, and to top it all off, it was pouring rain outside with no chance of going outside to play. She was over it, and so was I. Not only was I trying to help her get out of her fun, but I was attempting to get each of my other three kids set up for their e-learning, too.

Like most parents, we’ve had a difficult crisis-learning journey. At first, I was trying to do all-of-the-things, all-of-the-time, determined to keep everyone on schedule. This quickly became unachievable and frustrating. We then decided to prioritize. What could we let go, and what should we keep doing? Even with sticking to a daily routine, giving our kids the predictability, they needed, and simplifying their workload, it was clear that there would be days we wouldn’t do any of it. Instead I’d proclaim that we would be taking the day off in the name of mental health.

The reality is that just because our kids are learning-at-home, it doesn’t mean their days are magically more chill, less-stressful, or worry-free. In fact, crisis-learning has been so much harder on my kids in many ways. Let’s be real. I’m not qualified to teach fifth-grade math, conduct speech therapy sessions, or know when my child is ready to “level up” in reading. My kids pick up on my frustration and lack of confidence, and this leads us to all be a moody, fumbling mess. If my mental health is off that day, particularly when my anxiety disorder is rearing its ugly head, I cannot effectively help my kids manage their own mental health. Parents can’t pour from an empty cup.

This isn’t about giving up when the going gets tough. Quarantine life is already rough. Pair all the togetherness with both me and my husband working from home while trying to help four kids finish up their school year and the past few months have been challenging, to say the least. We haven’t managed to strike a perfect, harmonious balance, because I honestly don’t believe that’s possible. Some days, we have to call it quits for the sake of our sanity.

The truth is, if our kids are struggling mentally, they aren’t learning. There’s absolutely zero reason to push them to complete a social studies worksheet, a science activity, or participate in (yet another) Zoom call if they clearly aren’t getting anything out of it. Forcing a struggling child to go through the motions requires kids to expend what little energy and concentration they have, which only makes us all miserable. Parents have the power to determine that school is not in session for a day and mental health maintenance is the priority.

We have a unique opportunity right now to teach our children to listen to what their bodies and brains are telling them. If they are having symptoms of anxiety or depression, they need to listen to those and act accordingly. What they shouldn’t do? Push those warning signs away, pretend they aren’t happening, and then let them fester until they explode. The best way to do this? Parents need to model when and how to take a mental health day, then give their kids permission to honestly express when they need a damn break.

I’m not going to push my children to the brink of a total meltdown that might take days to recover from. Instead, we’re taking a more proactive approach. When I sense that they are going downhill, we hit the pause button. In the short-term, we might have a healthy snack, go outside, or set aside the school work for an hour or two. If we’re to the point where they (and me) need a longer break, we’ll take an entire day off. We will wear our pjs all day, carve out hours for free play including Lego building and reading, and watch a movie. Sometimes, our kids just need our permission to reset.

You might be wondering how educators feel about this. My kids’ teachers have been overwhelmingly supportive and understanding. Let’s remember, many of them are not only teaching our children, but they’re helping their own kids distance-learn. They get it. Quarantine is overwhelming, frustrating, and patience-testing for all of us. We’ve kept communication open with our kids’ teachers, sharing with them when we’ve needed an extended deadline, or when a do-over is necessary for an assignment. Not once have we received any pushback for prioritizing our mental health.

I know some parents feel that what I’m doing is coddling my children and that taking mental health days doesn’t work in “the real world.” Guess what? This isn’t the normal, real world we are used to. COVID-19 has opened up a brand-new reality that requires fresh rules and schools of thought. One opportunity we have as parents right now is to show our children how we can be adaptable and strong, yet also know when it’s time to self-advocate.

Our kids’ mental health is just as important as their emotional, spiritual, and physical health. The four all work hand-in-hand for overall well-being. When one is off, that can affect all the others. Therefore, we are choosing to take mental health days when necessary, just as we would take a day off if a child was physically ill. We are unapologetic in making sure that we consider our children as a whole, not just their educational experience.

I’m not going to push my kids to the point where they reach total burnout. We are reducing their work loads where we can so that their to-do list is more feasible. And when hard days hit, as they inevitably do, we determine it’s time for a mental health day. There’s always tomorrow.

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