Children's Mental Health week: What parents can do to help young people cope

By Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

Children are not the face of the pandemic but, as UNICEF puts it, they risk being among its biggest victims.

Their mental wellbeing has not been this fragile on such a widespread level in the UK since perhaps the Second World War.

Drastic changes to education, isolation from friends and family, and confusion over the changes to the world around them could leave a lasting impact, if left without support.

An NHS survey on the mental health of children and young people published in October last year suggested one in six children aged between five and 16 had a probable mental health disorder.

This figure represents an increase since 2017, when the rate was one in nine.

After a bleak 12 months living with Covid-19, Children’s Mental Health week has taken on added significance.

On Sunday, the Duchess of Cambridge – a patron of charity Place2Be, who are organising the week – spoke out about the importance of parents looking after their own mental health.

Mums and dads need to be “the very best versions of ourselves for the children in our care,” she said.

It’s an important message. For all that parents (or carers) want to do for their children, there is no easy way out or fast-track solution they can apply to their issues.

But there are simple, everyday habits, behaviour, and conversations that can help both parent and child through these tough times.

Accept you can't fix everything

It all begins with you, the parent or carer.

What’s so important is to live with the fact you cannot solve all your children’s problems, there is no quick fix, and life is much harder than usual right now – and that’s OK.

But there is a tendency for parents to try to “jolly along”, says Dr Karen Street, a consultant paediatrician and officer for mental health at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

Dr Karen Street says parents must recognise they cannot find a perfect solution.

“Mothers are struggling as well as they want to solve this for their kids but they can’t solve everything,” she told ITV News.

“It’s better not to jolly around teenagers and pretending everything is just fine, they don’t want it brushed under the carpet.

“They want to feel sad and angry, they are sort of grieving for something that’s lost and it’s hard for most of them to rationalise.”

Be a reassuring presence. Remind them this will eventually pass and, in the meantime, you are there for them.

Be honest with your children

A big part of accepting the reality is being honest with your children, at least to an appropriate degree.

Many children understand there is a virus going around that’s beyond your control as a family, but how you yourself deal with the pandemic can have a major influence on their attitude.

As Deirdre Kehoe, director of training and services at mental health charity Young Minds, says: “They often take their cues from those trusted adults in their lives, and if you are calm and reassuring they will do the same.”

She told ITV News’ Cornavirus: All You Need To Know podcast: “They have so many questions and we can’t answer them all, but even saying ‘I don’t know’ is a good answer.

“It’s good for them to see that you don’t necessarily know it all but you’re there to help them and reassure them that this will pass and it will get better.

“Keeping that communication as open as you can [is important].

“What we see from children and young people is that it’s not a good idea to hide anything from them - they see the news, they talk to their friends.”

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It’s a message echoed by Dr Street, who said lying to children “never works” and that it’s best to be honest but to “tailor or water down” your honesty according to their level of understanding.

“Children model themselves on how they see parents acting, appear calm and in control and reassuring, and don’t show effects on yourself,” she said.

“But the older they get, you can’t do that. Teens have their own thoughts and feelings and that’s when you have to really listen to what they have to say.”

Have conversations

And that brings us to one of the most important elements – regular and empathetic communication.

Dr Street says they have seen a huge increase in children feeling sadness, a lack of motivation, and struggling to communicate.

“But what parents can really do with kids is to listen to them and accept they feel sad, and rubbish, and tired, and understand that.

“We have seen a lot of children moving from Year 6 to Year 7 have been particularly hard hit, and those who lost GCSEs.

“They lost significant lifetime events that parents can sometimes brush over.

“I think we need to accept that for them it’s been a major life event and we need to let them feel sad and really listen and get onside with them.”

Shared activities can be a good way for children to open up. Credit: PA

Of course, talking to young teenagers or even younger children about their feelings can be difficult – and often the best way is not to simply sit them down and ask ‘how are you feeling?'

Ms Kehoe recommends trying to “do positive things together”, such as going for a walk or baking.

It’s during those moments, when children naturally are given a bit of space to share their thoughts, that conversations can flow.

Understand their issues

Those conversations may throw up a surprise.

All children are unique and the specific aspects of normal life most-missed won’t be the same for all and it’s important not to simply assume you know what your child is missing.

A survey by the RCPCH in 2018 asked 630 young people aged six-25 across the UK what it is that keeps them healthy, happy and well.

By far the most popular answer was ‘places to go/things to do’, while friends and school life were among the less common responses.

“Overwhelmingly, what they voted for was places to go and things to do, and that’s exactly what we’ve taken away from them,” said Dr Street.

“Schools have lost extra-curricular activities, and for those kids used to doing them they have lost all of that.”

It’s important to really understand how significant this loss of normality can be for the younger generation.

“In the life of adult, yes we are all fed up, but one year is not very much, not in retrospect,” Dr Street said.

“A year in a child’s life is absolutely enormous, and if you are four then that’s a quarter of your life.

“Kids are changing all the time. We don’t realise this enough. A year in their life is massive because they change in a year. That’s where to some extent the impact on the has been overlooked.”

Keeping a routine and getting good sleep

Sleep issues have become commonplace during the pandemic.

According to the NHS’s 2020 survey on mental health in children and young people, 58.9% of those aged five to 22 years with a probable mental health disorder reported having sleep problems.

Dr Street says this will be affecting all children.

Getting into a routine is key. Credit: PA

“If you left most teens to it they would become nocturnal and sleep until midday, we know that. And without routine they’ve resorted to that,” she said.

“It sounds cliché because – and it’s really hard – but it’s about making sure they exercise and eat regular meals and limiting screen time to some degree – and that’s what parents are finding so hard right now.

“We’re now expecting them to be in front of screens for hours for online learning, when we used to discourage too much time in front of computers.

“Having a bedtime routine and things like and getting into pyjamas and putting screens away, reading books and things like that can go a long way.”

Ms Kehoe recommends planning your day ahead.

“It’s really good for you and your children if you’ve worked out what time you’re getting up, when you’re having breakfast, when you do some school stuff,” she said.

“It doesn’t all need to be done at the same time, so doing smaller chunks and spacing them out during the day and having breaks in between is really helpful – and that might help you as a parent plan any jobs you have to do.

“Try and keep that routine as much as possible… and keep a routine in the evenings, having that activity together that they can look forward to can really help them through the day.”

Getting exercise and fresh air

“If you can get out and get some exercise every day then that’s really brilliant,” Ms Kehoe said – and it’s certainly something to aim for.

Even if it’s just for a walk, setting aside some time for change of scenery can give that bit of variety that is sorely lacking for so many in lockdown.

So try to limit the screen time and get some fresh air.

And again - reassure them that this won't last forever

Reassurance is vital – they need to know that this will pass and that you will get through this together

Stevie Goulding, Parents Helpline Manager at YoungMinds told ITV News: “Reassure them this will pass, you’re there for them, and you will get through this together.

“Having returned to some of their normal activities over the summer, going back into stricter measures might feel frustrating for your child.

“They may even be worried that things will never get better. Recognise how difficult this is, while also letting them know that the pandemic will not last forever.”