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How to spot if your child is struggling with their mental health – and what to do next

Let them know it’s safe for them to talk when they’re ready (Alamy/PA) -

Let them know it’s safe for them to talk when they’re ready (Alamy/PA) -© Provided by The Independent

Spotting when your child is struggling with their mental health, and knowing how to support them, can be tricky for parents and carers.

It’s an important issue to be aware of, however. According to the Children’s Society, in the three years up to 2022, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem increased by 50%, while children and young people’s mental health charity Place2Be says one in six children experience mental health difficulties, rising to one in four amongst 17–19-year-olds.

Emotional disorders including depression and anxiety are among the most common problems to crop up.

James Emmett, regional clinical lead at Place2Be, says although the Government has taken “great strides” to address the issue by introducing support teams and senior mental health leads in schools, “we’re still seeing a sharp increase in diagnosable mental health conditions among children and young people, now affecting one in six children – which is around five in every classroom”.

Stevie Goulding, senior manager for parents and carers services at the charity YoungMinds, says: “More young people than ever are struggling with their mental health and are in need of support. This generation is facing a unique set of pressures – living through a pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis and ongoing global instability – and they’re worried about their future.

“As young people navigate the ups and downs of growing up, recognising when to be concerned about your child’s mental health can be difficult.”

Here, Goulding and Emmett outline how parents can spot whether their child may be struggling, and how to help…

1. Look for behaviour changes

A change in behaviour is usually the first sign that a child or young person is feeling low, says Emmett: “They may eat too much or not enough, have problems sleeping, or stop doing things they normally enjoy.”

Goulding adds: “If you notice changes in your child’s behaviour or if they appear persistently distressed, it could mean they’re struggling with their mental health, and it’s important to take their concerns seriously.”

2. Give them the opportunity to talk

Goulding suggests parents try to talk to their child or teen about how they’re feeling in a non-judgemental way. “Remember, they might not want to open up at first, so reassure them you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk. Remind them it’s ok for them to feel scared or unsure, and try to reassure them,” she advises.

3. Don’t force them to talk

However, Emmett says sometimes they may not want to talk, adding: “It’s important that adults don’t force them to have a conversation they don’t want to have. Parents and carers must make sure they’re available – but don’t pressure them to talk.

“It can be really tempting to ask a lot of questions, but it’s easy to slip into interrogation mode. Try to focus on the here and now and what would help moving forward.”

4. Choose your momentAvoid discussing the underlying causes of your child’s distress with them during intense moments, Goulding advises: “While it’s crucial to provide support, it can be more beneficial to address these topics when they’re feeling calmer.”

5. Ask how they’re feeling

Ask if your child notices when they feel more or less sad, for example, at school, or when they’re with their friends and family, suggests Emmett. “Responding sensitively to your child’s signals with concern and interest will help them learn you’re there for them,” he notes.

Goulding says parents can acknowledge their child’s feelings by saying something like: ‘It’s completely understandable that you’re feeling…’. She explains: “This helps to reassure them their feelings are valid and it’s ok to feel different emotions.”

6. Remind them of obstacles they’ve overcome in the past

When a child or young person gets overwhelmed, they forget just how much they’ve already dealt with in their lives. “Tell them stories about how proud you were when they coped with certain moments in their life, such as an sitting an exam, or moving house,” says Emmett. “This will remind them of their resilience – their ability to adapt to difficult situations.”

7. Encourage them to stay active

Physical and mental wellbeing are often linked. “This means doing something active can be a great way to boost your child’s mental health, and heading outside into green space can have even greater benefits,” says Emmett.

He suggests parents walk or cycle short distances with their child instead of going in a car: “It’s cheaper and will help the planet to be healthier too.”

8. Model positive relationships

Happy relationships between parents and significant adults lead to better mental and physical health for everyone, stresses Emmett. “By modelling positive relationships of your own, you can help your child to see what positive, healthy and meaningful relationships should look like – and to recognise when friendships aren’t positive,” he says.

9. Remind them how they feel will change

Your child might not be able to see the light at the end of the dark tunnel they’re in. “Reassure your child that how they’re feeling is temporary,” says Goulding. “Things can change and they can feel better.”

10. Discuss what help is available

Talk to your child about the different sources of help that are available, such as helplines, text lines and online chat services. “Reassure them it’s alright to confide in others, as young people often worry about upsetting their parents,” says Goulding.

As well as YoungMinds parents’ helpline (0808 802 5544) and Place2Be, other sources include your child’s school, which will have a designated senior mental health lead, your GP who can refer your child to CAMHS,  Parenting Smart, which provides free advice for parents and carers of 4–11-year-olds on how to support their child’s wellbeing and behaviour, and the free Shout 24/7 textline for anyone in crisis (text SHOUT to 85258). 

Story by Lisa Salmon:  •: The Independent: 

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