Children's Mental Health: A Parents Guide

Children's Mental Health: A Parents Guide

Children’s Mental Health Week starts on the 3rd of February, and this year’s theme is Find Your Brave. For more information on how you can get involved check out their website here. To help raise awareness we have created this children’s mental health guide for parents. Covering everything from the different areas of mental health, signs to look out for in children, helpful resources and what parents can do to help.

How Common Are Mental Health Issues in Children?

On average one in ten kids has a diagnosable mental health condition, which means that around three children in every classroom are suffering. All any parent wants for their child is for them to have a happy and healthy childhood, which means knowing or suspecting a mental health problem can be greatly worrying and distressing. It can also be hard for parents to distinguish mental health issues against normal childhood behavioural problems, especially when kids might not have the ability to express their concerns.

The Challenges of Childhood

Advances in technology, such as smartphones and social media, not only make it easier for children to access information but also gives them the ability to connect with friends and family wherever they are. Even though this can be beneficial, it can also have a negative impact on a child’s mental health and wellbeing. The desire to stay connected can interfere with activities that build mental resilience such as socialising, eating and sleeping. Constantly being exposed to images, advertisements and updates on other people’s lives, there’s no wonder children often feel a strong sense of inadequacy.

Children may also experience a wide range of life events growing up that they find difficult and can trigger mental health issues. This can include moving house, changing schools, or a birth of a sibling. Teenagers can also experience emotional upset as they hit puberty and gradually start to make the transition to adulthood.

Being Able To Spot The Signs

As parents you are often the best at noticing any changes in your child’s behaviour, but it may be more difficult to identify signs of mental health concerns. Many of the tell-tale signs may be character traits or dismissed as the ‘growing pains’ of kids getting older. Knowing what to look out for may help you identify whether there is a problem.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder is a condition where someone regularly feels very worried about a range of everyday things. There may not always be an obvious reason why they feel anxious. It is thought that one in six children and young people experience anxiety at some point in their lives.

How kids may feel:

  • Worried about a number of everyday things
  • Finding it hard to control the worry
  • Restless or nervous

Physical Symptoms:

  • Feeling nauseous
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Becoming tired easily
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Regular headaches

Parents May Notice:

  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Stomach problems

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder is characterised by a persistent fear or anxiety about social situations that involve interaction.

How kids may feel:

  • Anxious about being around other people and having to talk to them
  • Self-conscious in front of other people
  • Worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed or rejected
  • Afraid that people will judge them
  • Excessive worry in the lead up to a social event

Parents May Notice:

  • Avoiding places where there will be other people
  • Cancelling planned social activities
  • Blushing, sweating or trembling around other people

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is a long-term condition where sufferers are consumed by obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviour or both.

How kids may feel:

  • Have unwanted thoughts, images or urges that repeatedly enter their mind
  • Compelled to repeat certain things (e.g.- checking that doors are locked)
  • The urge to repeat mental acts which people won’t see, such as repeating a certain phrase in their head
  • Fear of contamination from dirt, germs, and viruses
  • Show an excessive concern with order or symmetry

Parents May Notice:

  • Repeatedly checking things, such as locks and light switches
  • Cleaning or washing excessively
  • Arranging or touching objects
  • Hoarding or collecting things

Depression

Even though it’s normal for children to have ups and downs - if the feeling of sadness lasts for a long period of time and causes them to lose interest in their life or changes how they think or behave, it’s possible they may have depression. Even though depression affects everyone differently, the two main symptoms are having a low mood along with losing interest or pleasure in doing things they usually enjoy. It’s thought to occur in around 1-3% of children and young people.

How kids may feel:

  • Sad all the time
  • Not enjoying or wanting to do any of the things they usually would
  • Helpless
  • Worthless or have a loss of self-esteem/self-confidence
  • Hopeless or that it’s too hard or painful to live
  • Have thoughts about running away/escaping their life
  • Thoughts of self-harm

Physical Symptoms:

  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Regular headaches
  • Restlessness and agitated

Parents May Notice:

  • Gaining or losing weight as a result of a change in appetite
  • Avoiding family and friends/ cancelling plans
  • Crying in situations where they wouldn’t usually cry
  • Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
  • Having poor concentration and finding it difficult to make decisions

How Parents Can Help

Discovering that your child is struggling with their mental health can be tough and upsetting, however it’s crucial you try to remain calm. If your child senses that you’re upset or worried it may cause them to become stressed and stop them feeling comfortable enough to open up. Here are some things you can do to boost their emotional resilience and help them to manage a mental health condition.

Create a Safe Environment

Creating an environment where children feel comfortable talking about their mental health can help you to know when your child is struggling with something. In fact, early intervention plays a key role in helping kids change the way they cope with difficult situations and can potentially prevent problems from worsening and becoming more complex later in life.

Discuss Worst-Case Scenarios

Ignoring mental health issues isn’t going to help your child, but discussing worst-case scenarios can be strangely helpful. Once they have identified their worst-case scenarios, ask them to imagine that they’re in that situation, and ask them what they would do -- really what’s the worst thing that can possibly happen? Bringing this scenario to life will rationalise your child’s worries a little and help them come to terms with what would really happen if their worst fears came to life.

Regular Exercise

Exercise is good for the mind, as well as the body, and can help to release stress and anxiety. Go for a walk with your child, get them to do some jumping jacks or just a kick a ball around with them in the back garden. Exercise releases happy hormones which are going to lift your child’s mood.

Talk It Through

Talking is key to recovery for children with mental health conditions and having a strong support system of friends and family is essential. Ask them exactly what they’re feeling and always take the time to listen, no matter how irrational their fears may seem. Often just talking it through with someone else will make them feel at ease. Helping your child identify out loud exactly what triggers their feelings will also mean they start examining their thoughts and behaviour, which can be an important first step in trying to get better.

Write Thoughts Down

If your child is avoiding opening up to you, encourage them to write things down in a journal. It can help them to express exactly what they’re feeling and give them some control and understanding, especially for those who don’t feel comfortable or can’t find the words to talk about it.

Places Parents Can Find More Information

If you think your child may be showing signs that they are struggling with their mental health it’s important to seek medical support as soon as possible - in most cases this should be your local GP. There are also several charities and organisations that could provide you and your family with help and advice.

  • Mind
  • NHS
  • Place2Be
  • Rethink Mental Illness
  • The Mix is the UK’s leading support service for young people and provides teenagers and young adults with support on a range of topics including mental health via helplines, message boards, web chat and text.
  • YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.
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