How can parents know whether or not their child is struggling with their mental health? How do we assess or measure a child’s state of mind?
This matters all the more today and even more now as they step back into the school environment after nearly 3 months away. Many children will take time finding their feet again, especially adjusting to school in its Covid-secure form.
So, what can we do to help them? And how do we assess if they are coping?
Annie, one of our Northamptonshire Relate counsellors who specialises in children and young people, shares here three areas which might indicate your child is struggling, and gives you ways you can support your child. Bear in mind each child is different; we will notice changes in their behaviour and mood in different ways.
What are the key signs that my child is struggling?
- Have you noticed changing sleep patterns in your child? Are they struggling to get to sleep, or waking very early? Sleep is vital for good mental health, and disrupted sleep is a clear indicator that a child is struggling. Take time to notice when a child goes to sleep, how well they sleep and when they wake up. Compare it to what you would consider “usual” for them and notice any changes.
- Is your child not willing to talk anymore? Do they spend more time in their room or on their own? When a child withdraws from relationship, it’s likely that they are feeling low. They may have emotions they are afraid to articulate, or perhaps they feel the contrast between themselves and happier members of the family. If you notice your child avoiding connection, you know that there’s something difficult in their inner world.
- Are your child’s reactions out of proportion? Do they explode over a small thing, or dissolve into tears over a small problem? Do they seem quickly overwhelmed? Inner turmoil often leaves us vulnerable to ‘overflow’: because we’re already containing so much unexpressed emotion, we have no inner space to cope, even with small things. This sensitivity can indicate that your child needs a way of processing all that’s going on in their mind.
You may have noticed only one of the above, or your child might be exhibiting all three symptoms. Whatever your situation, there are plenty of things you can do to help. If you notice all these symptoms or are unable to shift any of these behaviours, talk to your GP for further help or contact us.
Helping your child get good sleep is a sure way of improving their mental health. There are many things you can do here, but routine is the key. Work with your child to develop a good routine that helps them wind down to sleep well; these work as well for children as they do for us!
Here are some ideas:
- Turn phones and devices off 1 hour before bedtime, and charging them in another room. The stresses of screens are well documented, so cutting down use of them before bed helps limit their impact on sleep.
- Set a going to sleep and waking up time for the same time every day of the week – including the weekend.
- Plan how they will get ready for bed: a bath, clean teeth, pyjamas, a story or reading time and then lights out, for example. With the repeated pattern every evening, their mind will learn that this routine means it’s time for sleep.
- Plan how they will get up: getting dressed, opening the curtains, having breakfast – a routine to tell their body it’s morning.
- If your child is kept awake by specific worries or fears, build into their bedtime routine an occasion to write those down or name them. Buy a book to be their worry book, encourage them to write down all the things in their head and then put the book, and their worries, away somewhere outside their room. You could also use a worry monster or a worry box for younger children.
- If your child is keeping a record of their worries, agree a time once a week where you’ll look through those worries together. There may be some they feel able to cross out and others you can talk about together. Avoid a time too close to bedtime.
Every parent knows you can’t force a child to communicate. Nor can you choose the times when they will suddenly be ready to open up! So how can we help improve their connection with family?
- Notice the times your child is most likely to talk and deliberately make space to be available at that time. Invite them to join you for a drink or a snack at that time. Let them lead the conversation, and be curious about what they want to talk about.
- Make it a habit to sit down together as a family and look at the week ahead. Talk about the things you would each like to do together that week and when you’re going to do them. This might be going on a walk, preparing a special meal or dessert together, playing a game, popcorn and a film… Don’t fill every day – choose a few things that everyone enjoys. The goal here is to build connection.
- We all feel love in different ways (broadly, there are five love languages). Try to discern how your child feels love most (the Family Love Languages Quiz can help here) and seek out opportunities to love them in that way. This will increase their sense of connection, and they are more likely to open up to you.
When your child is emotionally overwhelmed, there’s a need to work through all the things they’re feeling. This can be challenging if they are struggling to name or understand their emotions, but there are ways you can support them in articulating themselves, and ways to help them discharge the power of those emotions.
- Build family habits around sharing the ups and downs of the day. Meal times together are a great time to do this. Ask one another what the best bit of the day was and what the worst bit of the day was. Model naming the emotions for those moments yourself, to help build emotional literacy. This process helps externalise worries your child might be feeling, and develops their vocabulary around emotions.
- Plan a regular walk, run or other simple outdoor exercise with them. This can afford surprising opportunities to talk, without the pressure of face-to-face contact.
- Are there other key grown-ups that your child has a good relationship with? Build a time in their week where they can regularly chat or if possible meet in person (following current restrictions). This gives your child more opportunities for conversation with people they trust.
How can Relate help?
With the trauma of the pandemic over the last year, it’s expected that some children will be struggling with their mental health, and for some, extra help will be needed.
At Relate Northamptonshire, we have significant expertise in counselling children and young people. If you find your child is stuck, and are struggling to know how to help them, get in touch with our support team. We can see children aged 13+ by Zoom or telephone for counselling. Or, if your child is younger than 13, we can support you as a parent in helping your child.
We also may have funding to help support children in particular circumstances, so don’t hesitate to call us on 01604 634400 and find out more.