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How can parents recognise and address mental health issues in children?

Good mental health is just as important as good physical health and we all want our children to grow up happy and healthy, but unfortunately, anxiety and depression are on the rise in both adults and children. It can be easy to miss the signs of anxiety and depression, but spotting them early on and knowing how to support children through their mental health struggles is crucial for their overall well-being. In this article, we’ll explore how parents can recognise and address mental health issues in children, who to go to for professional help if your child’s mental health is significantly affecting their life, and ways in which parents can support their anxious or depressed child. 

Recognising the signs

The signs of anxiety and depression in children can be different to those of adults. While some children may openly express their feelings of distress, others may try to hide their emotions. It’s important to notice any changes in your child’s behaviour, mood or habits. Here are some common signs to watch out for;

  1. Changes in behaviour: Look out for sudden changes in your child’s behaviour, such as becoming withdrawn, irritable, or avoiding social situations they once enjoyed. 
  2. Physical symptoms: Anxiety and depression can often be physical symptoms in children, such as headaches, stomachaches, or changes in sleeping patterns.
  3. Difficulty concentrating: Notice if your child is having trouble concentrating or experiencing a decline in their academic performance, which could be a sign of underlying emotional struggles.
  4. Excessive worrying: Pay attention if your child seems to be worrying excessively or has fears that seem irrational or out of proportion to the situation.
  5. Changes in appetite: Keep an eye on any significant changes in your child’s eating habits, such as a lack of appetite or overeating.
  6. Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness: Your child may express these feelings either verbally or through their behaviour, such as crying a lot, isolating themself, or making negative statements about themself such as “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t do anything right.”

How parents can help their child

It is common for parents to feel that their child’s mental health problem is their fault, or they feel they have to understand exactly why their child is struggling and how to make it better. But the most important thing to do for your child is to reassure them and not judge them for how they feel.  

Some ways parents can recognise and address mental health issues in children:

Create a supportive environment: Ensure that home is a place where your child feels comfortable expressing their feelings without judgement or criticism.

  1. Use the phone: If your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you in person about their feelings, try talking over the phone or via text message.
  2. Listen actively: When your child shares their thoughts and feelings with you, make sure you let them know their feelings are valid, and reassure them that you are there to support them unconditionally.
  3. Teach coping skills: Help your child to use coping skills to manage their anxiety or depression, such as breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, yoga or journaling.
  4. Encourage healthy habits: Try to make sure your child is doing regular physical exercise, eating nutritious meals and getting enough sleep each night. These lifestyle factors can have a significant impact on mental health.
  5. Limit screen time: Set limits on your child’s screen time and encourage them to do plenty of activities that promote relaxation and creativity, such as reading, drawing, or spending time outdoors. 
  6. Set an example: Be a positive role model for your child by prioritising your own self-care and seeking support when needed. Showing your child healthy coping mechanisms will help them to learn to manage their emotions effectively.

Taking care of yourself and getting support if you need it is important. Try not to blame yourself for how your child is feeling and remain hopeful that your child will overcome their challenges with your love and support.

Seeking professional help

If the way your child is feeling is having a significant impact on their day-to-day life, it may be time to seek professional help. Seeking help is a proactive way of supporting their well-being and a step in the right direction. 

  1. Get help from your child’s school: Speaking to a teacher at your child’s school can give you valuable insight into their well-being during school hours, and also make the school aware of the challenges your child is facing. They may be able to provide someone your child can speak to regularly about their mental health, such as a school counsellor. Ask your child if there’s anyone in particular at their school they feel comfortable talking to.
  2. Speak to your GP: Your GP will do a thorough assessment of your child’s symptoms. They can develop a treatment plan if needed which may include some or all of the following; therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication. If necessary they can refer your child to a mental health service that specialises in working with children and adolescents for further evaluation and treatment. 
  3. A CAMHS referral: Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) is an NHS service for children and young people under 18. It can help those who are struggling with serious mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, eating problems or self-harm. Referral is usually done through your child’s GP and unfortunately, there is often a wait of several weeks for the initial assessment appointment. Children are usually encouraged to see a CAMHS worker on their own as this can help them to be more honest about how they are feeling, although sometimes parents are involved and may be offered family therapy with their child.

By recognising the signs early on, seeking professional help, and providing a nurturing and supportive environment at home, parents can play a crucial role in helping their child to navigate through their mental health struggles and thrive. Remember, you are not alone on this journey, and there are resources and professionals available to support you and your child every step of the way.