Mental health problems in children and young people
It can be very hard to look after a child or young person who is experiencing emotional or mental health problems. You may feel isolated, scared, challenged, angry or deeply upset. These are all perfectly normal reactions to a tough situation.
Yet help is available, if you know where to turn to for it. That’s where we come in.
We’ll now walk you through trusted places where you can find support, practical steps that you can take to help your child, and introduce you to organisations that help parents or carers just like you.
Be assured, things can improve for you and your child. Mental health problems, much like physical health difficulties, are often temporary and, with the right support, can change for the better.
Help is available and others are there to share your worries and guide you through this time. The sooner you seek support, the better. The three places listed below are a good place to start.
Talk to your GP
Your GP is there to listen to you and provide professional guidance, based on sound medical experience. An open conversation with your GP will allow them to understand your child’s individual needs and suggest the most appropriate course of action or support for your child. This may potentially include a referral to mental health specialists.
The first step is the hardest but it’s also the most important one for you to take: make an appointment for your child with your GP and explain your concerns. You may also find it helpful to make a second appointment with the same GP, for yourself, to discuss the “ripple effects” and impact of your child’s difficulties on the rest of your family. If your child is over 18, you will need to encourage them to make an appointment for themself.
Help at school
School is very important when it comes to understanding the full picture of children’s mental health. A child’s day-to-day experiences at, and engagement with, school can have a big impact on their health and wellbeing.
Communicate with your child’s teachers about the issues your child is experiencing and how you are all coping. Have a private discussion about practical steps that the school can take to support you. If your child is comfortable doing so, encourage them to also talk to a trusted teacher or member of support staff in confidence about their emotions.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
Some local CAMHS services have a Single Point of Access (SPA) to help and support children, young people under 18 and their families. While some services need a referral from a GP, school or social care, others accept direct contact from families. Find your nearest CAMHS service and have a conversation to find out what help may be available to you. NB CAMHS is only available for young people under 18. There are also a number of recommended national organisations that specialise in providing mental health support, with experts on hand to listen and guide.
10 steps you can take to help your child
Are you a parent or carer looking after a child or young person with emotional or mental health problems? If so, always remember this: you are not alone.
Many families experience similar stressful situations and share the same concerns. Yet they may not feel comfortable discussing these openly.
How you act is a big factor in your child’s recovery from mental health difficulties. Seeking professional help and guidance is of course very important, but the more you personally understand, the more confident you will be when it comes to providing support.
While each case is individual, these ten tips might help you to help your child.
For the most part, young people simply need to know that you are there to support them. Actively look for ways to start a conversation and get your child talking; open-ended questions (“How are things with you?” or “What’s on your mind?”) are always better than aiming for a yes or a no. If your child lets you know about a problem or difficulty they are facing, don’t immediately try to ‘fix’ it - work through it together.
Listen and be understanding
Try not to judge your child - instead, listen calmly and let them know you are happy to be there for them when they chat about whatever they want to. Show an interest and never underestimate the value of an attentive, non-judgmental listener. All of us want to be heard, and more often that not, listening without responding is more than enough.
Give your child reliable and trusted self-help information
Peer-to-peer support can be really useful for children going through tough times. Self-help support such as Anna Freud, Kooth (for ages 10 - 25) and The Mix (for anybody under 25) can be explored in private at your child’s own pace, while safe in the knowledge that you are there to help and answer questions and they are not alone.
Tell them (and show them) how much you care
Ideally, a peaceful, loving home life can really help recovery, yet this isn’t always an easy environment to create when stress levels are high. It has to be built and nurtured. Create simple family routines - for example, having a regular movie night, going for a walk, playing a board game or sport- whatever works for you. Then stick to it. Just doing simple everyday things together can provide a helpful distraction and bring everyone closer. Enjoy this time together, but try not to pressurise your child or teenager if they do not enjoy these activities. Give a little space while still supporting and involving them in daily family life.
Understand the problems
There are many different levels to mental health difficulties, much like there are with physical health problems. Get to know your child’s specific challenges through honest conversations together and by reading up on expert insight. By understanding their experiences and what helps recovery, you can help build confidence for the future.
Support social contact
Socialising plays such a big role in mental health recovery; the importance of spending time with friends and family cannot be overstated. Even if it’s only for short periods at a time in planned situations, encourage your child to go out and keep in touch with their friends. Sharing experiences and conversation with others is proven to be a positive distraction.
Champion regular physical activity
A commitment to daily exercise can help improve mood and reduce anxiety. Whether it’s a walk, run, bike ride or even playing a sport or swimming, exercise and physical fitness can help counterbalance feelings of depression and isolation. Encourage your child to remain fit and active - even better, find something you can do and enjoy together.
Know that recovery will not happen overnight
It’s only natural to want to make your child feel better immediately, but there is no ‘quick fix’ when it comes to mental health problems. Often, these take time to improve and some challenges, such as eating disorders, can be very complex. Prepare yourself for ups and downs on the road to recovery.
Don’t be afraid to seek further advice
There are many excellent sources of guidance and support available to you: from experienced mental health professionals to national organisations. Actively seek out advice and support, both online and in your local area, and get the help you need.
Look after yourself … and don’t blame yourself
To support your child, you need to stay strong and well yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup. It often helps to express how you’re feeling by talking to someone you trust about the impact that your child’s mental health difficulties are having on you and family life. Remember, also, that parents or carers often feel guilty, thinking that they have caused the problems, yet usually this is not the case. Be kind to yourself.
National organisations which help parents
It’s really important to reach out and seek help if your child is experiencing emotional or mental health challenges.
Your GP, child’s school and local CAMHS service (for under 18s) are all good places to begin for support and guidance. Yet you may feel that you need to have a deeper or more personal conversation to deal with what you are experiencing and the “ripple effect” on your family.
The following national organisations all offer expert, professional support for parents going through exactly what you are going through. Remember: you are not alone.
Young Minds is an excellent source of information about all aspects of child mental health, including online resources, help for parents and a dedicated Parents Helpline offering confidential, expert advice: 0808 802 5544.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has a detailed section on help for the whole family. Readable, user-friendly and evidence-based information is provided on mental health problems and treatments, written by psychiatrists with help from patients and carers.
Samaritans offers 24 hour, nationwide support by phone, whatever you’re going through, 365 days a year. Call for free on 116 123 or email email@example.com if you find that writing down your thoughts and feelings helps you to understand them better.
Papyrus offers confidential advice and support from qualified professionals about suicide. This is for anyone under the age of 35 who is experiencing suicidal thoughts and for their friends and families. Papyrus’ Suicide Prevention Advisers are ready to support you via HOPELINEUK - call 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039 967 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beat gives clear advice on all aspects of dealing with eating disorders, including helpful guidance to parents, carers and families. Eating disorders often thrive in secrecy so it is important to get help as soon as possible.
SANE provides emotional support and information to anyone affected by mental health problems - including family and carers - through its helpline, Support Forum and Textcare services.
Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families works with infants, children, young people and their families to deliver timely-evidence based support. Helpful resources are available for parents and carers.
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