Today is ‘Time to Talk’ day and to show our support we are giving you some helpful advice on how to recognise signs your child might be struggling with their mental health and how to encourage open and honest conversations with them that reduce stigma and help them feel more comfortable talking about how they are feeling.
Mental Health is, according to the National ‘No Health Without Mental Health Policy’
“a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment.”
This is different to mental illness in which you are unable to function normally because of intense depression, stress or anxiety. And you can actually have high levels of mental health even if you are diagnosed with a disorder, in the same way, you can have poor mental health without one.
As with our physical health, a number of different factors, at different times in our lives, can affect our levels of mental health, and it can shift, change and also be overcome or well managed with the right treatment and support – at the right time.
It’s no secret that there is a stigma around mental health and this can make it feel hard for people to talk about how they are feeling and seek out the treatment, support or advice that they need if they are struggling with symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.
However, as our children grow up, we, as parents, can help to play an important role in shaping the ways they view and talk about their well-being and help to reduce the stigma in turn.
Some reasons our children might find it hard to talk about their mental health or mental illness include:
- They are sometimes misrepresented or even ridiculed, making the person worried about how they will be viewed.
- Lack of understanding and stigma in the past meant that some people saw mental illness as something that only affected people who were “crazy.”
- They may not realise that how they are feeling or behaving is a symptom of mental illness or poor mental health.
- They may fear that they will not fit into ‘society’ or peer groups/their community.
- They might worried they will be judged and seen differently by others.
- They don’t know what to say or who to say it to!
- It makes them feel vulnerable and like they are showing signs of weakness.
- Unsure how they will be received – will they be dismissed or seen as ‘making excuses for their behaviour?
- Fear of not being taken seriously or believed – it’s not always easy to see from the outside.
As children grow and move towards their tweens, they begin to develop a sense of identity and begin to have conversations about their emotions with friends, however, this may be challenging if they are battling mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. In some cases, teenagers may also try to hide the emotional distress they are feeling from their parents, which makes it more difficult for the parent to recognise that something is wrong.
So, what might be some of the signs that a young person is struggling with their mental health that you can be aware of as a parent?
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Withdrawal from social situations
- Avoiding activities they enjoy
- Obsessively focusing on the same worries
- Tummy aches, nausea & headaches
- Nail biting & other nervous habits Irritability, agitation & restlessness
- Struggling to focus & pay attention
- Excessive need for reassurance
- Excessive ‘what if’ questions
- Fatigue on waking or during the day
- Increased or decrease in appetite
- Feeling sad or miserable all of the time
- Irritability or frequent arguments
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
You may well be the first to notice the challenges or the changes for your children and so our top tips for talking to them about their mental health are:
- Give regular opportunities for them to talk to you – the car can be a great place to start conversations as there is little pressure for eye contact. Although do be prepared to pull over if the conversation requires your full attention!
- Listen, listen and listen more – it can be really difficult as a parent, but let them talk and resist the urge to interrupt them, finish their sentences or offer advice before they’ve finished explaining.
- Stay calm and try not to get upset – they may be feeling anxious about how you will respond, and it might be a really big step for them to open up to you. Your child might also be concerned they will worry you and don’t want to make you upset. How you react in front of them will support them feeling like they can talk to you again in the future.
- Show you are taking them seriously (even if you can’t relate to how they are feeling) and offer a non-judgemental ear. We know that our experiences are very different to our children’s (even before the pandemic) but we can let them know that we have listened and ask them what support they may want.
- Assist them in identifying supportive people in their lives – sometimes it’s really difficult to talk to you, their parent, about an issue but they may feel comfortable chatting to an older cousin, aunt or uncle.
- Give your children (and adults) a voice to discuss the mental health challenges they, their friends or family are facing. This can begin as a conversation over breakfast (maybe not with teens!) or over dinner. Don’t be afraid to ask your children how they are doing, check in to see if they are coping and if there is anything you can do to support them.
- You can share your own struggles (as parents we are not immune) – talk about things you have done differently to enable yourself to cope better. Maybe you’ve changed your routine, found better ways to look after yourself, have identified the person you are comfortable to talk to and lean on when things are difficult.
- Make time for ‘problem free’ talk so the focus is not always on the challenges they are facing to add balance – the dinner table is a great time to go round and share what’s been good (maybe 3 things from each person) to encourage the habit of recognising achievements, however small and continue to re-enforce the idea that despite their challenges there are still things to be pleased about, grateful for or appreciative of.
- Seek professional help. As parents, sadly, we don’t have all the answers, so know that you can seek advice form the GP, local mental health services or a private therapist.
If you have any concerns there are a number of websites and helplines that may be a first port of call, alongside meeting with your GP or a trained therapist to discuss any concerns and signpost any appropriate help:
Young Minds: www.youngminds.co.uk
Young Minds Parent Helpline (Monday – Friday):0808 802 5544
Eating disorders: www.b-eat.co.uk
National Self-Harm Network: www.nshn.co.uk
Papyrus: Advice and support for young people struggling with suicidal thoughts. 0800 068 4141
Childline (Under 19s): 0800 11 11