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Children's mental health: how to help them

7 February 2024

All children and young people struggle with their emotions at times, and some sadness and worrying is normal. But how can you tell when your child’s difficulties are symptoms of a mental health problem, and how should you go about getting them help if you feel they need it?

Common mental health problems and how to recognise them in children:

Depression

Depression is a persistent low mood and loss of interest in activities, and it can also have physical symptoms. Bear in mind that it's common for teenagers to become more withdrawn and moody and for their interests to change, but if they have a lot of these symptoms it may be depression. Look out for:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed
  • Being irritable and grumpy
  • Being self critical
  • Talking about feeling worthless or guilty
  • Hiding away and withdrawing from socialising with family and friends
  • Eating more or less than usual and weight gain or loss
  • Talking about or engaging in self harm or suicidal behaviour

Anxiety

A certain amount of anxiety is normal, especially when going through changes like a new school, but persistent worrying is not and can be very distressing for young people. 

Symptoms include:

  • Sleep problems - difficulty getting to sleep or waking in the night
  • Difficulty concentrating and a drop in school performance
  • Being tense and finding it hard to calm down
  • Being desperate to avoid situations or places, like going to school or socialising
  • Physical symptoms like stomach aches, nausea and headaches
  • Repetitive rituals and behaviours can also be a sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

It's important to note that anxiety is more common in children with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. 

Eating disorders

Eating disorders can affect boys as well as girls. They are more common in older children and teens. Symptoms may include:

  • Significantly restricting food intake 
  • Avoiding eating in front of others
  • Eating large amounts in an uncontrolled away (binging)
  • Making themselves sick after eating (bulimia)

Psychosis

Psychosis is a rare but serious mental health condition which can develop in teenagers and young adults. If your teenager suddenly starts seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren't real and develops strange delusional beliefs, it's possible they may be experiencing psychosis. It is important you take them to a doctor as soon as possible as this condition requires assessment and treatment. 

How to support your child or teenager

If you are concerned that your child may be depressed or have anxiety, the first step should be to talk to them. Pick a time when you have time to listen. If they are uncomfortable opening up or sitting and making eye contact, try doing an activity together or going for a walk and starting a conversation then. If there is another adult they are close with and open up to, you could ask that adult to talk to them. 

Listen to what they say in a calm, non-judgemental way. Don't dismiss what they are concerned about, validate the way they are feeling. It may not seem like something to worry about or get upset over to you, but if they're concerned about it then it's important. 

Don't immediately suggest solutions to the problems they tell you about, unless they specifically ask for advice. It's important to acknowledge the way they are feeling. 

Continue to check in with them and let them know that they can speak to you whenever they need support. 

How to seek professional help

It's best to keep your child involved in decisions around seeking help, if you can, as this will help them to trust you and engage with professionals. 

Ask them if they are comfortable with you speaking to their school, as schools usually offer pastoral support and may have access to counselling. Having a trusted adult to speak to at school may help them feel more supported. 

You can also go directly to your child’s GP about your concerns. It can help to take a written list of your child’s symptoms and difficulties with you. They may refer you to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHs). You can read online about the NHS services available in your area. 

Will they put my child on medication?

Medication isn't usually the first-line treatment for children and teens with mental health problems. Counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are preferred treatments in most cases, although there can be long waiting lists for these treatments on the NHS. These treatments involve talking about your child's difficulties and equipping them with the skills and tools to cope with their thoughts and feelings. 

There may also be charities in your area which can provide counselling and other support for children with mental health problems. Use this NHS search tool to find out what's available near you:

https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/other-health-services/mental-health-support-for-young-people

In conclusion, listen to your child and take their concerns seriously. If you are worried about their mental health, consult their GP as the first step.

Photo by Kindel Media

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