How To Help A Child Struggling With Their Mental Health

How To Help A Child Struggling With Their Mental Health

Defining what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour for a child is hard for a lot of parents. Many aren’t sure whether to be concerned when a usually talkative eight-year-old becomes withdrawn, if an 11-year-old has a stomach ache every morning or when a teenager suddenly refuses to leave their room. With cases of child mental health issues on the rise, we went to the experts to delve deeper…

It’s More Common Than You Think

“According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 10-20% of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental health issues. More locally, data shows nearly 13% of children aged five to 19 have a mental disorder, and these figures have been gradually rising since 1999. The pandemic has pushed these numbers even higher; with a report from October 2020 suggesting one-in-six children now have some form of mental health problem. To make this a little more tangible, that’s the equivalent of five children in a class of 30 having a mental health issue. Half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14.” – Viktoria Paniotova, child psychologist at MEplace

Your Genes Could Play A Part

“Studies show the majority of emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are caused by a mix of genetic and external factors. In fact, there is substantial evidence that maternal depression and anxiety increases the risk of mental disorders among children. This highlights the importance of parents suffering with their mental health getting help – doing so could, in the long-term, support the mental health of their children.” – Viktoria 

Higher Stress Could Be To Blame

“In children, anxiety is the most common mental health challenge – children can develop worries about anything, ranging from germs to vomiting and losing a parent. Some children are born with more sensitive or anxious personalities, although there’s lots of evidence to show children are now flooded with stress hormones, and this could be contributing to a rise in mental health problems. As the respected child psychologist Dr Margot Sunderland says, ‘There’s no mental illness that doesn’t have elevated levels of stress hormones at its core.’ This is because constantly raised levels of these hormones, such as cortisol, affect how our kids see the world. When those levels stay high – whether it’s from watching the news, the pandemic, seeing inappropriate images or cyber bullying – there’s evidence this blocks wellbeing neurochemicals, such as serotonin, a mood stabiliser, and opioids and oxytocin, all of which give children the sense that all is well in the world.” – Tanith Carey, author of What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology For Modern Parents

There Are Signs To Look Out For

“Feeling anxious from time to time is normal for all children, and the majority will outgrow these feelings and learn to cope with different situations. However, for other children anxiety can occupy all their thoughts and behaviours, affecting their daily life, preventing them from enjoying their hobbies and going out with friends and family. The main symptoms of anxiety in children are excessive fear and distress accompanied with physiological symptoms. This could be a rapid heart rate; headaches; sweating; fatigue; an inability to relax; troubles with sleep and frequent nightmares (more than once a week); clingy behaviour; constant worries about safety; and constantly seeking reassurance. Anxiety in children can be triggered by many things, including starting a new school, moving to a new area, exams, phobias, bullying, parental conflicts, illness and divorce. Whatever the cause doesn’t make the anxiety any less valid.” – Viktoria

Irrational Thoughts Are Also A Warning

“There are many signs your child may be struggling with their mental health and many are individual to them. However, if they appear to be stuck in phases of normal development for longer than normal – such as being clingy, afraid of the dark, or having an irrational fear of dying, you may need extra support to address this. You may also need support if these issues are interfering with their normal day to day activities, including sleeping, eating and going to school.” – Tanith

… As Are Signs Of Extreme Behaviour

“If mental health is an issue for your child, they may either start to act out at school, and in the home can show signs of anger and violence. On the flip side, a child can also withdraw and become more distant, wanting to self-isolate and spend a great deal of time on their own. As a parent, you should look out for any signs of significant change in your child’s behaviour.” – Dr Shadi Shahnavaz, head of family therapy at The Soke

A Safe Environment Matters

“Make your home a haven where your child will feel psychologically safe and relaxed. Put firm boundaries in place around electronics and make sure they have a regular bedtime so they can get the recuperative sleep they need to feel well and able to cope with challenges. Make it clear your love is unconditional and not dependant on what they achieve, and check in on how much you are criticising your child to help them lower their levels of stress hormones. Also try not to leave your child alone with their worries – by the age of ten, half of children in the UK have a mobile phone, meaning they are more likely to be accessing huge amounts of information designed for adults. They are also likely to be consuming this information on their own in their bedrooms, not with adults who can explain, reassure and contextualise.” – Tanith

You Should Be The Leader

“When it comes to helping a child struggling with anxiety, first find ways for your child to express themselves. For example, if your child has a lingering fear of the dark, find out exactly what your child is afraid of. Don’t dismiss or shame. Ask questions and role-play with toys if necessary so they can process and explain their feelings; then work out strategies together that feel workable to you both. Remember that children can learn to manage their fears of the unknown and soothe themselves when caring, patient adults show them how.” – Tanith

Taking The Pressure Off Will Help

“To help a child manage mental health issues, you may need to look at your own lifestyle and take measures to create a more calm, less pressurised environment for your child. Often, we are overloaded ourselves, and this can be contagious to our kids as they so often look to us to check if the world is a safe place. You may have to find ways to manage your own stress, so you feel like a calm centre when it comes to talking to your child. If your child is anxious, look for more ways to have fun and relax with them, without the pressure on them to learn, achieve or better themselves – just be together.” – Tanith

Learning To Overcome Obstacles Is Key

“Encourage an anxious child to take the leap against the things that are making them anxious – for example, getting on the Tube or walking home from school; if this is the case, meet them halfway and recognise their successes with them. Over time, help them to recognise that their thoughts are indeed thoughts and not always facts.” Hannah Abrahams, educational and child psychologist

If In Doubt, Just Be There

“The best thing you can do for an anxious child is just to be there and listen to their feelings. You need to mirror what they are feeling and put words to what you can see, for example, ‘I can see how upset you are now, and I understand that you are fearful, I’m so sorry you are going through this.’ The thing not to do is to try and give advice and to reassure them by saying things like, ‘But remember on other days you are happy and with your friends.’ When a child is going through an anxious moment, they only need to know that their parent is there for them and can put words to their feelings.” – Dr Shadi

Finally, Remember It’s Not A Life Sentence

“If your child has a mental health problem, this does not mean they will have it for life, at least not in a consistent or severe form. For example, for autism spectrum disorder, in the vast majority of cases, is a life disorder, although the right treatment can alleviate a lot of symptoms and dramatically improve a child’s quality of life. However, the recurrence of a disorder is more likely if you’ve experienced it earlier in life – in this case, it can recur in episodes, often triggered by a life event or continuous high levels of stress. What makes the difference is whether a child has received the right and prompt psychological treatment.” – Viktoria

For more information visit, and What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology For Modern Parents by Tanith Carey with Dr Angharad Rudkin, is available now. For further support, check out Nip In The Bud, a charity working to raise awareness of mental health in children of all ages.

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