Supporting the mental health of children and young people
Mental health, also known as mental wellbeing, is about how we think, feel and behave. This can range from feeling happy and optimistic to feeling very low and unable to escape negative ways of thinking.
Many of us are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of our children and young people. It may be that your child was already struggling before these new challenges came along. The good news is that there are ways that we can all support our children’s mental wellbeing.
You can’t pour from an empty jug
To be the best support we can be to our children, it’s important that we take care of ourselves. This may seem like one item too many on our ‘to do’ list. However, how we respond to stresses and challenges, will be noticed by our children and will be an important way they learn. How well we are able to look after ourselves, will also affect how much emotional energy we have available to parent our children. Some practical ideas for self-care can be found on the Clear Your Head website.
Supporting physical wellbeing
Supporting your child’s physical wellbeing will also support their mental wellbeing. Have a fresh look at sleep routines and think about how you can build in physical activities both in the house and during exercise time outside. Helping your child learn relaxation strategies can also be helpful.
Addressing fears and worries
If a child or teenager appears anxious it is important not to assume we know why - it’s good to check in with them to see if they are able to, or want, to share what they are worried about.
If they are concerned about the pandemic, it is helpful to give them access to clear information that is geared to their age group, for example BBC Newsround or a story book; be aware that children can become stressed by empty reassurances from adults. Instead, it is helpful to answer questions honestly and reassure them that although we don’t yet have all the answers, we can deal with this situation together.
Watching too much coverage of the news can be overwhelming, so it helps to limit viewing time in order to support wellbeing. When watching coverage, it can be useful to notice and comment on the helpful things people are doing to make life easier for each other.
Helpful conversations about feelings
It can be helpful to open up conversations, for example, ask ‘How are you feeling at the moment?’ or ‘It’s been a tough time lately. How are you getting on?’. Try to really listen to your child when they are talking to you as it’s easy to be distracted by all that is going on.
If a child or young person shares a problem, we can be tempted to try to ‘fix it’ but instead it is usually more helpful to listen and show we understanding their feelings and concerns. Your child may prefer to discuss feelings through a game format, for example the Balloon game.
Younger children may not be able to name their emotions. We can help by offering them a possible name for how they are feeling, for example: ‘I’m wondering if you are feeling a bit sad just now’ or ‘are you angry because you can’t go on the swings at the moment?’. We can also comment on characters in stories and wonder about what they might be feeling.
We can support our children and young people by helping them to find positive ways to express strong feelings. Some children might express their feelings through imaginative play, others might draw, journal, kick a ball against a wall or go for a run. We can also help them to think about what helps them feel better when they are down or upset. Some might find physical exercise helpful, others might find it helps to stroke their pet, talk to someone, ask for a hug or watch a favourite TV programme.
Try to help find new ways for your child to stay connected to friends and family. Can they send a picture in the post, talk on the phone, or wave at a friend’s home as they walk by?
Encourage acts of kindness
Children and young people can improve their wellbeing by finding small ways to help others. Perhaps they can help a sibling with their reading, bake for the family, be encouraged to message their teenage friends to check they are okay, or do an act of kindness for the community, for example send drawings to a local care home.
How to get help
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health contact their GP. Parentline can also support with general parenting advice either through the website or telephone line.