An increasing number of children are struggling to cope with the pressures of everyday life. What can you do to support your child? And how can you tell if they’re in need of professional help?
Childhood should be happy and carefree. But research shows that a growing number of youngsters are struggling with mental health issues.
Last year, an in-depth study into the well-being of UK children by The Children’s Society found that young people’s happiness was at its lowest since 2010.
So why are so many children unhappy?
Jo Hardy, Head of Parent Services at the charity Young Minds, says: ‘We know from calls to our parents’ helpline that children and teenagers face a huge range of pressures, including stress at school, body image issues, bullying and the pressure created by around-the-clock social media.
‘Difficult experiences in childhood — like domestic violence or bereavement — can also have a serious impact, often several years down the line.’
Worrying behaviours like self-harming are on the rise too.
According to data obtained by the NSPCC, 18,778 young people aged 11-18 were admitted to hospital for self-harm in 2015/16, a 14 per cent rise on the year before. And self-harm among teenage girls aged 13-16 in the UK increased by 68 per cent over just three years, according to data collected by GPs.
Jo says that around a quarter of the calls to Young Minds’ parents’ helpline relate to self-harm. ‘There has also been a worrying rise in the number of young people hospitalised after self-harming,’ she adds.
The reasons behind self-harm are complex, according to Jo, but the pressures of children’s lives today do seem to be affecting their mental health.
Long waiting times for treatment are also having an impact. Children with mental health problems are waiting up to 18 months to get NHS help.
According to Jo, some parents say their children have started to self-harm during the wait or have dropped out of school.
Dr Rachel Andrew, clinical psychologist and author of The Supermum Myth, says she has seen a rise in young people in her clinic who are self-harming.
She says that many parents are unsure when to seek advice.
‘Children do change, particularly during adolescence, and many teenagers display behaviours such as lethargy, tiredness and stubbornness. But sometimes these traits can mask true depression,’ she says.
Dr Andrew believes that happiness starts at home — but early on.
‘Happiness and confidence in children starts in the early years, when a child is first born,’ she says. ‘That’s the base for great self-esteem and secure bonds. Then, as the child grows, you can build on that and show that you unconditionally love them, and that should stand them in better stead so when they do get older and turn to peers or make mistakes, they know they have a solid base at home to turn to.’
Jo agrees that home life is of the utmost importance in creating a child’s sense of wellbeing and providing a haven where they feel they can talk.
She says: ‘Parents play a crucial role in providing support and encouragement to their children and in acting on any warning signs.
‘We’ve recently launched our #Take20 campaign, which encourages parents to find 20 minutes a week to talk to their children, while doing an activity they enjoy — like playing football or baking a cake — about how they’re feeling and any pressures they face.
‘We know that it isn’t always easy for children to tell their parents if there are problems at school, on social media or in their relationships with friends, but by creating time to talk to your child in a relaxed setting, you can make a massive difference.’
But how can a parent tell the difference between a mood swing and serious unhappiness?
Jo says that, while it’s normal for kids to go through periods of feeling moody, anxious, low or angry, there are other signs to look out for.
She says: ‘If they consistently struggle — if there are changes to their sleeping or eating patterns, or if they always seem upset — it’s important to take it seriously.
‘Don’t blame yourself for what they’re going through, but talk to your child about how they’re feeling, reassure them that you love them, and look for support from your GP or the Young Minds Parents’ Helpline.’
Edited by Julie Cook
To find out more about the #Take20 campaign visit youngminds.org.uk/take20
Dr Andrew’s tips for parents
Keep lines of communication open — tell your child to come to you when they want to talk, let them know that you will listen.
Trust your instincts — if your child is acting out of character, your judgement might be right.
Seek help — don’t feel you are wasting people’s time if you feel you need support.
See your GP or talk to your child’s teacher to see if they’re unhappy at school.
Stay calm — if your child seems depressed or you suspect self-harm, calmly ask if they want to talk.
Signs of self-harm
Wearing long sleeves or trousers to hide the body, even in warm weather.
Finding utensils for self-harming such as knives or blades in your child’s possession.
Self-harm does not always mean cutting — some young people can self-harm with cheap paracetamol or other drugs.