What to do when your child thinks school is pointless

A post-COVID malaise has hit many youngsters going back to classes. Here are suggestions about how to respond.

Media Contact: Chris Talbott - talbottc@uw.edu, 206-543-7129

If your tween or teen is struggling more this year with motivation as they return to school, or expressing that it feels pointless, you are not alone.

The coronavirus pandemic put current high schoolers on a rocky path to graduation and adulthood. Parents, teachers, counselors and mental health professionals are seeing problems manifested as another school year approaches. It may start with reluctance to go to class, but can morph into far more serious issues, said Dr. Yolanda Evans, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine who practices at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“We've definitely had an increase in kids presenting with mental health concerns in our emergency department, for example, with thoughts of self-harm or suicidality,” Evans said. “We've seen a bump in the number of youth who've been admitted with an eating disorder or concern for an eating disorder. ”

Adding COVID-19 isolation, academic disruption and familial unsettledness to the more typical worries about social media, community violence and climate change has pushed many teens — and adults, too — to a breaking point. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that children ages 8 to 18 receive anxiety screenings and those ages 12 to 18 be checked for depression.

If your child is skipping assignments or class and questioning the value of school, pay attention, Evans said.

“Watch for things like isolating from their usual fun activities or not wanting to engage in things that they really enjoyed in the past, spending lots of time alone,” she said. “I think anytime that kids give any kind of language around wishing they weren't here anymore, those kind of things, take it seriously. And as a parent, a caregiver, an adult in a kid's life, if you're worried, speak up and let them know you're worried and then help them get support.”

Resources are available for parents and adults in these circumstances. They can seek out a pediatrician, a school or district counselor or a mental health professional for advice and help. There's the Washington State Mental Health Referral line, too. And for pediatricians and primary care providers, there is a partnership access line for mental health and psychiatry resources.

“Every adolescent needs at least a trusted adult,” Evans said. “It doesn't have to be me as a parent or caregiver. But it needs to be someone they actually trust who's not going to go and share all of the deep, dark secrets, but will be able to speak up when they're worried about their safety.”

Evans urges parents not to overthink it: “Adolescence is this amazing time of opportunity and identity development. Kids are pretty resilient overall. If we can just help support them and guide them through those rough patches, they usually turn out OK.”

Evans also offers the reminder: It’s not just children who are struggling. Parents and the other adults in the room need to be mindful of their own well-being.

“For parents, I always ask them, ‘What are you doing to take care of yourself first? Because we can't take care of others until we're caring for ourselves. So, who's your support? Who do you lean on when you need some help? And who's that trusted person or people in your life?’”

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