On Episode 5, Season 2 of Big Little Lies, we got to see a softer side of the screech machine known as Renata. Renata keeps little Amabella home for a little mommy/daughter time, where we see the two frolicking in their infinity pool overlooking the Pacific. (Which is exactly what my son and I do on days off, natch.) What’s notable about the moment wasn't just seeing Renata show maternal love that didn’t involve a disco-themed birthday party, but the very notion of keeping a child home for a mental health day. It may have left some parents wondering: is it OK for kids to play hooky when they're feeling overloaded? Do kids really benefit from mental health days?
I reached out to Dr. Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. Dr. Chansky says that just like adults, kids also have periods where they need a mental break. "Kids are no different, in the sense that when a child or teen is on overload, the benefit of just 'powering through' is a myth, and a risky one at that."
The idea of kids just getting on with things being "risky" might sound a little extreme to some parents. I mean, mental health days were definitely not a thing when I was a kid. (Not even the time in 4th grade when I tried to style my own hair and looked like Thomas Jefferson. My mom still made me go to school.) But Dr. Chansky isn't talking about bad hair days or kids just wanting to ditch out on math quizzes. She's talking about kids who seriously need a timeout. Says Chansky: "Often when kids need a mental health day, they have been under extreme stress. Whether from school-related deadlines and activities, issues in the family — such as the illness or death of a loved one, a move — or a problem at school, such as bullying or a conflict with a friend."
Chansky believes that when a child is dealing with real conflict, it can be imperative to give them a chance to push pause. "When we are on overload we — whether kids or adults— don’t re-set automatically to a calmer state, instead when we have protracted stress our inner alarm system stays in the 'on' position," says Chansky. "With the rates of anxiety and depression in kids and teens greatly on the rise, we aren’t talking about the luxury of a day off to play, we are talking about serious mental health risks in youngsters that require vigilance and a proactive approach."
But Chansky also makes it clear that this time off shouldn't be an excuse to zone out in front of Riverdale while scarfing entire bags of Cheetos. It's should be about making healthy choices for the body and mind: "A mental health day should be just that. Not a time to sit on a screen all day, which as we know can contribute to feelings of depression and loneliness," says Chansky. Rather, kids should "get some extra sleep and eat good food," and if there is an issue that needs to be addressed, parents should "talk through the problem and come up with a game plan to go back to school differently than when your child left."
So how to know when your child really is in need of a mental health day, or simply hates their Founding Father hairdo? "Parents can usually tell when their child needs to be encouraged to persevere," says Chansky. "But when such encouragement leads to kids getting more upset or distressed, spiraling into more stress, where they can’t benefit from your support or process your advice, then pushing with 'business as usual' can be detrimental. There will be diminishing returns as your child’s coping debt deepens."
So don't be afraid to keep your little guy or gal home to hang for the day. As Dr. Chansky says, it can "can bolster a child’s resilience and prevent problems down the road." Not only that, it will likely give you some lasting, sweet memories of a special day of just bonding with your kiddo. And that's good for your brain as well, Mom.