Health & Science

When and how to give your child a mental health day

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Now more than ever, everyone can use a “mental health day,” even kids (or maybe especially kids)!  

Not only is a mental health day a mood-booster, it gives their minds and spirits a chance to rest and recharge while sending a positive message about the importance of self-care. It also provides an opportunity to talk to your child about any struggles they may be having, whether it’s with grades, friends, or the uncertainty of post-pandemic life in general.

5 signs your child might need a mental health day:

  • Seeming overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious all the time
  • A big change, such as move, a divorce, or the loss of a loved one
  • Changes in sleep or appetite that don’t seem to improve 
  • Clinginess, especially if they’re younger
  • Sudden unusual behavior, like avoiding school or daycare

What to say to make your kid’s Mental Health Day a success

It’s important for kids to know this is more than just a day off—it’s a chance to rest and recharge, with the purpose of re-entering their normal routine reinvigorated. 

So, make it clear this is a normal and healthy thing to do, and connect it to your family’s overall goal of prioritizing mental and physical health.

And also clarify that it’s a rarity, something you do once in a while when it feels like your mind, spirit, and body could use a little extra respite (and not just when you want to avoid a test at school, for example). 

Know your options

Find out if your child’s school has a mental health day policy. Several states have added them to their lists of excused absences, but even if yours hasn’t, one unexcused absence isn’t going to make a big difference to their academic record. Talk to your child’s teacher or school administrator about how to handle the day off, and encourage them to add excused mental health days to their support resources for students.

Can’t take the whole day? For some children, a special lunch visit from you might be enough of a mental health break, or the promise of a special activity during the upcoming weekend. Either way, it’s worth it.

“Mental Health Day” activities for kids

Rather than watch TV or sleep all day, experts suggest activities that will help your kiddo relax, recharge, and reconnect with you or a loved one without wearing them out. For example: 

  1. A walk, hike, or bike ride
  2. Crafting, journaling, drawing, or pursuing some other creative activity—either alone or as a family
  3. Planting a garden or visiting a park—anything that has to do with nature
  4. Playing board games, watching a movie—anything that counts as quality time with a parent, sibling, or grandparent
  5. Create DIY stress relievers like squishy stress balls, relaxing doodling sheets, glitter jars, etc as a fun off-screen activity to do together that also gives you and your child tools to use in the future when feeling stressed or anxious 
  6. Quiet free time at home without any must-dos (this is especially great for children with busy schedules who participate in a lot of sports, clubs, or activities)
  7. Try one of our fun 7 mental health boosting activities for kids

Some experts say that binge-watching TV or playing video games is counter-productive during a mental health day. That said, if this feels like the perfect time to indulge in that show or movie you’ve been waiting to watch, or to get introduced to a video game your kid loves, other experts say that can be a good way to tune out the world and disconnect from your daily stressors for a while. The spirit of the day is all about taking it easy, so do what feels right for your family.

Get ahead of it

It’s important to talk about Mental Health Days before you need one.

One mom told us she gives her kids one “get out of jail FREE” card per semester, so they can take a day off for personal reasons when they feel like they need it (provided they’re not missing a test or important event). Even though they rarely use it, they feel better knowing it’s there if they need it. Providing children with this healthy coping tool is a great way to get ahead of any potential struggles that may lie ahead. 

You can also use low-stress times to work on resilience with your kids, so they’ll have tools to cope during times they’re struggling. Create a “calming kit” full of comforting items they can pull out later when they’re feeling anxious, make a DIY calming jar, try belly breathing exercises, or introduce other self-care practices your child can draw on when needed.

Even more importantly, keeping the conversation about emotions, stress, and mental health open on an ongoing basis lets your child know that they can come to you right away if things start to feel too heavy and they need a break or other support.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.