Health & Science

Tips for allowing “mental health days” – without kids taking advantage

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You may have heard of the idea of allowing kids to take “mental health days.” Sounds great in theory, but what if kids take advantage just to skip school?

If you’re intentional about it, and establish how the mental health days will work ahead of time, you should be able to avoid this becoming a big issue. Try to assume the best of your kids—they don’t generally want to break rules or cause trouble. However, they might not always deal with their problems and emotions in the healthiest way, so that’s when we can step in to guide them.

Kids might genuinely benefit from an occasional mental health day if they’ve had a particularly hard week or month—for example, if they’ve just pushed through a series of stressful exams or performances, or they’re struggling with a recent emotional event like a breakup or loss of a pet.

With a “mental health day” system that works for your family, you can give your kids a break, while also helping them set healthy boundaries and become resilient in the face of future challenges.

What to do beforehand:

  • Ask questions to be sure your child isn’t trying to get out of school to avoid something difficult, like a group project, or a teacher who challenged them. In these cases, avoidance is only going to make their anxiety and stress worse.
  • Discuss the purpose of mental health days BEFORE they need one. You can even set a number limit—like 1 day per semester, or 3 days for the whole school year.
  • Establish firm rules, like no taking test/presentation days off, or no taking off on days where they have their hardest class.
  • If they have stressful events coming up at school or in life, you can even plan ahead for them to use a mental health day AFTER getting through those challenges.

What to do on the day of:

  • Establish boundaries and expectations for the mental health day: For example, making it a screen-free day so that it doesn’t turn it into a social media, video game, or TV binge session (which could be counterproductive to mental health).
  • Offer ideas to genuinely boost their mental health during that day—such as coloring, organizing/fixing things, listening to a relaxing podcast/music, exercising/outdoor time, journaling, talking through feelings with you or a trusted relative/therapist.
  • Don’t make it a fun goof-off day where you offer to buy them treats or go to the arcade. 
  • Don’t let them sleep all day, as that could make them feel more depressed, throw off their sleep schedule, or teach them an unhealthy way to avoid their problems.

Consider alternatives to a mental health day:

  • When a whole day off seems like too much, offer another planned mental health break, such as picking them up early one day, or asking a school counselor if your kid can check in with you over the phone during a free period.
  • If your kid keeps begging for another day off, stick to the limits/rules you set, but show them that you take their emotions seriously by setting aside a time to talk with them about it after school.
  • Get to the root of the problem: If they’re dealing with something larger like bullying, a learning disorder, depression, social anxiety, or insomnia, they’ll probably need support that goes beyond what an occasional mental health day can provide.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.