Across the UK, schools are again preparing for or just started a phased or full return of children to the classroom. We are all too aware of what effect lockdown and school closures due to Covid-19 has had on our little people. There have been many voices that the mental health in children has been affected by the recent pandemic. While the return to school will be exciting for many students, others will be feeling a little anxious or nervous about the prospect.
A surge in mental health cases has been reported by charitable mental health organizations across the UK as a 70% rise in demand for services has been seen over the past few months. This significant increase in numbers of referrals among under-18s during the pandemic is leading the NHS and other mental health organizations to be seriously concerned about what might be ahead. Mental health was already seen to be an existing problem in children´s health and was deemed to be at crisis levels before the pandemic. It is thought that one in six children suffers from mental health problems.
So, what is mental health? And how can you know if your child is suffering from poor mental health?
Mental health is described as emotional health or well-being and affects the way people think, feel and act. Being mentally healthy means that we feel good about ourselves, make and keep positive relationships with others and can feel and manage the full range of emotions.
As parents, we play an important role in our child’s mental health. When you strengthen your child’s mental health you are having a positive effect on how your child thinks and feels and also increasing their chances of success in school and in life. So how can we nurture and strengthen the mental health in children? Here are some tips to help you and your child navigate some of the complicated emotions they may be facing going back to school.
What are the main things we can do as parents to help with mental health in children?
- Create an environment at home that promotes good mental health by the way we behave and what we say.
- Learn about the early signs of mental health problems and know what resources are available to help.
- Grow your child’s self esteem.
- Play, play, play.
- Give them some space
Crate a positive, safe home environment.
Be aware at home of discussing serious issues or arguing excessively with or in front of children. Make time for family fun, games and physical activity- indoors and outdoors. Read books together- reading has proven health benefits. Make your child feel that little bit extra special by getting them their own personalised books with their favourite characters and friends.
Watch how much screen time your child is having outside of schoolwork. Be sure to lead by example and be aware of your own screen time around them too.
Pick up on your child’s negative thinking.
If a child isn’t feeling good about themselves, if they have low self-esteem or worries then they might use negative language when talking about themselves. Let them know that talking about difficult feelings with the people we trust is a brave thing to do.
Grow your child’s self-esteem.
Self-esteem is how people feel about themselves. Children often are left focusing on their struggles, be it math homework or riding a bike, and they need help to find balance and learn to also focus on what they do well and are naturally good at.
- Recognise their efforts and praise them when they do well.
- Help them appreciate their own self worth and importance in the home.
- Show an interest in their activities and hobbies.
Worry less about your child’s academic progress post-covid and focus instead on helping kids reconnect and get back to playing. Playing enhances children’s social, emotional, physical and creative skills, and helps to develop early literacy and numeracy. Play also primes the brain for social and emotional learning
Create a calm corner.
If your child’s emotions get out of control, create calm corner, a space in your home your child can retreat to if feeling overwhelmed. Somewhere soothing and comfortable where they have some teddies, a pile of favourite books, water bottle and snacks, colouring pencils or sensory things such as bubble wrap, stress ball or slinky. Your child can decide when its time to spend time in the calm corner, with you helping them to identify the signs before things escalate.
Mental wellbeing and School
Research evidence shows that there is a close link between education and health. Schools offer routine, structure and stability that children benefit greatly from, consequently schools are key places for nurturing children’s wellbeing. Look out for signs of stress or anxiety that your child may feel going back to school. Explain that its normal and ok to feel overwhelmed sometimes.
Reassure your child about safety measures in place to help keep students and teachers healthy. Remind children that they can also help prevent germs spreading by washing their hands with soap, using hand sanitiser and coughing or sneezing into their elbow.
Talk to children about the positives – that they will be able to see their friends and teachers (if they are physically returning to the classroom) and continue learning new things.
How do I know if my child has a mental health problem?
If you are concerned about your child, ask yourself how your child is doing with friends, in school and at home. Look at whether you see changes in the way they behave, feel or are thinking. Note that some of these changes are physical as well as mental.
Changes in behaviour
- Not getting on with friends
- Overreacting over small things
- Trouble sleeping or loss of appetite
- Wanting to be alone a lot
- Crying easily
- Withdrawing from things they would normally enjoy
- Having new nervous habits such as nail biting or thumb sucking
- Lacking energy or feeling tired all the time
Changes in feelings
- Reacting to situations that seem bigger than they actually are
- Appearing to be unhappy, guilty, angry, fearful, sad or worried
- Feeling rejected, helpless or lonely
Changes in thinking
- Having frequent negative thoughts
- Affecting school performance
- Having trouble concentrating
- Blaming themselves for things that are not in their control
How can you gently check in to see how your child is coping?
Your child’s emotions may change regularly so it’s good to check in regularly too.
It is important that you manage your own emotions and remain calm, listen to their concerns and reassure them in kind words that you are there for them.
The best time to talk to your children is when they are relaxed and feel in a safe atmosphere. A good time to speak to your child is while doing creative activities such as drawing, colouring or reading. For older children this could be while cooking or watching TV.
Where can you get help?
The good news is that mental health issues are treatable, by a series of different approaches depending on the individual. So, the important thing is to try to get help early, so problems can be dealt with before they become worse.
The government has committed to supporting the mental wellbeing of children, increasing funding and training a new dedicated mental health workforce, while upskilling education staff about what good mental health looks like and so they can respond to children’s emotional and mental health needs.
If the problem is at school
If the problem is mainly at school – each school has a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) who will be a good first person to talk to – they can refer to school counselling or get an Educational Psychologist to see your child if there are marked difficulties in school.
There are various different types of support available and they vary from area to area. Your local council should be able to advise what is around locally for you.
Your GP can help.
It must be stressful, if you are concerned that your child is developing a mental health problem you should seek the advice and support of your GP as a matter of priority. GP’s are good people to talk to and they should know about local services to refer you to.
Other useful websites
Mind Ed for Families is a website developed by Health Education England and the Department of Education to help families understand and support their children, from parenting tips to getting help in a crisis.
NHS website has contact details for many mental health helplines
Family Lives is a voluntary organization that offers advice on all aspects of family life. They run a confidential helpline and an online chat.
Young Minds Parents Helpline offers free confidential advice via phone, email or chat.
The Mental Health Foundation is the UK’s leading charity for mental health specialising in research and policy development, with a focus on preventing mental health problems.