Children's Mental Health week: I think my child is struggling - what do I do?

Credit: NSPCC/PA

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

Many say 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.

We asked child psychologist Dr Fleur-Michelle Hope what to do if you are concerned about your child.

What signs can I look out for that my child might be struggling?

We all express how we are feeling differently and the same goes for children. Some children are able to let you know that they’re having a tough time, whilst others may not tell you as they do not wish to worry you or may feel silly raising their fears. Other children may be too young to put their feelings into words. 

You know your child best, so look out for anything that might be different about how they are acting that could signal that they are struggling.

Telltale signs that they may be finding things tricky could include:

  • changes in their behaviour such as becoming more clingy, losing their temper more often or seeking help more

  • changes in their body, such as breathing faster, sweating, or fidgeting more

  • changes in their eating or sleeping habits, such as having more bad dreams, waking up in the night, or being off their food

My young child's behaviour and sleep has changed since lockdown, what can I do?

Younger children who are experiencing problems sleeping, more tantrums, resisting instructions or generally acting out may be feeling anxious or worried.

They may not fully understand why things in their life may have changed and may feel unsettled by the change in their routine, which can lead to them seeking more reassurance (e.g. wanting to sleep in parents’ bed).

Therefore it is important to explain any changes to them in a clear, simple way that they understand and only give them information that they need to know.

For example they may be worried about not seeing grandparents who may be shielding if they previously saw them regularly, therefore telling them that we won’t see them this week but we will see them soon can help reassure them without overwhelming them. 

How do I know if their problems are serious or just part of growing up?

It can be really tricky to work out whether what your child is experiencing is to be expected given the current circumstances or whether they are going through some of the typical bumps in the road that happen for children of all ages.

It may be helpful to speak to other parents who you trust and who share your parenting values or to speak to your child’s school if you have concerns or just need to talk something through. 

What practical steps can I take to support my child?

Having a routine and structure at home can help your child when there are other uncertainties, especially if they are missing the routine and structure that the school day and week usually provides.

Having family rules, clear boundaries and expectations can also help a child feel contained. Your routine is likely to have changed during lockdown, so it can help to find a new routine and stick to this to provide familiarity and a rhythm to the day and week for you and your child(ren). 

Including daily exercise and time outside can be really beneficial for the whole family’s mental health and even if the weather isn’t good, active games and dancing to music are good ways to boost endorphins indoors!

Encourage opportunities for your child to connect with people who are important to them if they want this, such as family, friends and clubs they usually attend. This can be via phone, message or video call or it can be fun to write a letter or make a card or postcard, which are also nice to receive.

Being able to sit with and cope with difficult feelings is a skill that children need to learn that families can support them with. This skill increases their resilience when they are faced with challenges.

How can I get my child to open up to me?

It can be easier sometimes for children to open up if you ‘wonder’(guess) about their feelings rather than ask open questions (e.g. are you ok?), as your child may just say they are fine.

You might say ‘I think you might be a little bit worried, is that right?’ to try and open up the conversation.

Give lots of praise and encouragement if your child does talk about and share their feelings so that they know that this is something helpful to do.

Remind your child regularly that it is ok to talk about feelings and show them how to do this by talking about feelings (e.g. do you know what really worried me today…?).

It is important to be open that some things worry adults too but try not to overwhelm or scare children with lots of information about uncertainty.

Where should I go for help?

The British Psychological Society have produced some free evidence based tips related to the impact of COVID on children, parents and families. 

YoungMinds also have a useful help finder tool on their website.

The Anna Freud Centre has produced information for parents on supporting their children that includes under 5s.

If you are struggling, either contact your family doctor (GP) who will be able to discuss your concerns further or Samaritans offers 24/7 support online and via telephone.