So your child is struggling right now with anxiety, depression or another form of mental illness.  Maybe you always homeschooled, or maybe this mental health crisis has led you to homeschool. Either way, here you are now, wondering what you do.

It Can Be Overwhelming

First off, focus on loving your child, and giving them what they need.  During this time, take a break from worrying about curriculums, tests and whether or not they will be prepared for college.  There is nothing your child can learn this year that is more important than their mental health.

Let me repeat that. There is nothing more important than their mental health.  You have to live in your own head for the rest of your life. Learning how to do that is the most critical skill you can develop, whether you are 6,  13 or 32.

Your child’s needs may be different than what you expect. And different day-to-day. They might need therapy, medical care, medication, removal from a stressful or damaging situation or all of those. They also need healthy food and help with setting up and sticking to positive life patterns.  When a person is in a mental health crisis, they need help cleaning their room, encouragement to take a shower and get dressed, as well as help with other daily tasks that have become overwhelming.  Helping your child right now with chores they may have been doing for years may be necessary, until they find their way back. One sign that their mental health is improving is when they start to do these things for themselves again.

What to do

What your child needs is to find their way back to enjoying living. And the best path to get there is through unschooling.  If your child is well enough to do anything at all, I recommend having them set a goal of doing “something of value” every day.  “Something of value” is any task you can say you completed and that you feel good about.

This task could be academic, or it could be crafting, making art, cleaning or cooking.  Those tasks have value, too, and may create more of a sense of purpose and pleasure in life than academic pursuits. It depends on your child. You may wish to give them a long list of suggestions, and then let them choose what they will do each day.

Your job is to make sure they have what they need to do what they choose. This might mean trips to the library to fetch books on Norse Mythology, or ordering them a “how to play guitar” book on Amazon. It could mean you need to go purchase a set of paints, colored pencils, and good paper, along with a coloring book.

Help Them Find a Creative Outlet

Actually, do that anyway. Get some art supplies that belong only to your struggling child. A set of colored pencils they don’t share, a blank book and a coloring book. Coloring is proven to lower stress levels the same way that meditation does. Knitting and crochet and other crafts can have that effect too.

Encourage your child, as they are ready, to create.  They can create music, poetry, art, blog posts, painted rocks or knitted scarves. What they make doesn’t matter. What matters is that it creates a sense of accomplishment in their souls. As humans, we all have a yearning in our souls to create something that makes our world better, in big or little ways. Helping your child find their way into creating things will help their self-esteem and help them find their way back from the darkness.

Take your Time

Let your child spend a whole school year—or more if they need it—finding out what they like to do, what brings them pleasure or what makes the world bearable.  If you support their interests, you may be surprised at the things they will learn, try, and do when there are no rules about what must be learned. Life skills, like cooking, are rewarding in multiple ways. There is satisfaction in the actual work, of doing the thing. There is joy in getting to see and eat the results. And there is a sense of pride in seeing themselves as capable people who can care for themselves and others. Each of those aspects of the task may get your child engaged in the activity. But all three support healing.

If your child struggles to choose tasks for themselves, ask them to bake cookies with you. Invite them to go for hikes in the woods or attend a class you want to try yourself in yoga, knitting or painting. Find fun things to do that you can both enjoy. When your child starts to want to try things, say yes, a lot. You might not be able to do everything, but find ways to do as much as you can give them.  Borrow things, ask for help from the grandparents to afford those music lessons or the new science kit. Think before you say no, do you really have to say no?

But What About…

Are you wondering what about school work?  I am going to tell you the hard truth here. There is nothing your child will miss learning in school work now that they can’t learn later. It will honestly be easier for them to learn later when they are healthier.  And if they don’t ever learn long division? They are going to have a calculator in their watch, it will be fine. They will learn what they need. Honestly, they probably already know an amazing number of things they will never need. It will be fine.

When the mental health crisis is over, then you can worry about getting back to doing a regular curriculum.  It might be in a few weeks or it might be next school year. But the materials will be there. If your child graduates high school a year later than planned and has good mental health, you all win. There is no official point in life when you get to stop everything else and learn to take care of your own mental health. So do it now. Algebra can wait.

Laura’s List of “Things of Value” To Do Each Day While Regrouping

Doing something of value every day can help your child rebuild their motivation and confidence while keeping the stress low. The idea is for your suggestions to be open-ended but help direct your child towards completing something that requires actual work. Not much work, but something they can feel proud of when they are done.

  • knit
  • crochet
  • make music
  • learn an instrument
  • write something
  • draw something
  • color
  • make art
  • paint
  • clean something
  • walk the dog
  • read something
  • teach your brother or sister something
  • bake cookie or brownies
  • cook dinner or breakfast or something else
  • plant something
  • learn about something you never had time to research
  • go for a walk
  • do yoga
  • play a game
  • organize something, a bookshelf is a good start
  • sing a song to someone
  • pet the cat
  • feed the fish or turtle or tarantula or whatever you have

About the Author

Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

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