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I Loved Taking a Mental Health Day, But My Kids Are Reluctant

It was 25 years ago, but I can still feel the tension melting from my shoulders when my mom asked, “Do you want to skip school tomorrow?”

What I remember most about high school is the ever-present exhaustion. I caught the bus before the sun rose. I worked at a restaurant. Took advanced classes. Played a sport. And did school plays. 

I guess it’s no wonder I was so tired!

Yet, before my mom suggested it, I would have never even considered “playing hooky.” That’s what we called it in the 90s, before “mental health days” were a thing.

Thankfully, children’s mental health is getting more attention lately. States like Illinois and Oregon have even passed laws that allow kids to take up to five days off for mental health reasons.

Taking A Mental Health Day

I took exactly two mental health days in high school, and I vividly remember both. One was when my mom suggested I take a break after an especially taxing week. The other was when my dad surprisingly checked me out of school to play nine holes of golf on a beautiful afternoon. I’ll never forget that mid-week hiatus, filled with fresh air and exercise and one-on-one time with my father—it was exactly what I needed right then.

As a parent now, I reflect on my own experience having a break with a mental health day when contemplating if my kids should take one. Because it’s not always as simple as ditching class when you need a little breather.

If my mom had asked me to skip school on a day I had a calculus test, I would have said, “No way!” If my dad checked me out the afternoon I had a chemistry lab, I would have been flustered. In those cases, skipping school would have just caused more stress.

There’s also a clear correlation between absenteeism and poor school performance. The U.S. Department of Education reports that students who miss 15 days of school or more in a year are at serious risk of falling behind.

As parents, we’re tasked with figuring out if our kid needs a break, if that break will cause more harm than good, and making sure they’re not missing so many school days that a mental health day causes an even bigger issue.

For my high schooler, that’s meant checking him out for a special lunch when he was feeling down.

And yesterday, he asked to get a haircut during his study hall—lamenting how his after-school job just increased his hours and it’s really limiting his free time. So, I said, “Sure!” And I saw how that brief reprieve during the school day gave him a chance to decompress and helped lighten his load that evening. 

My middle schooler is so committed to his academic schedule that he doesn’t want to miss a single second of school time. It stresses him out! So for now, I haven’t given him any mental health time-off. But I’ll continue looking for opportunities as he gets older and busier, and his load of schoolwork and after-school activities grow. 

I’ve seen that taking just a day or two off from school can make a difference. I still remember how it made a difference for me. And I’m so thankful my parents recognized the need for a little break—even before “mental health days” were a thing.

When not worrying about her teenagers, Jacqueline Miller is writing about them. Her recent work appears in Parenting Insider and on her website. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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