Mental wellbeing is on the minds of us all at the moment as new pressures and an unfamiliar environment cast their impact on our daily lives. The television station ITV launched their mental health campaign, “Britain Get Talking”, on the 21st March. The new campaign focuses on bringing messages of support and love to the television screen at a time when we have never needed it more. It also serves as a reminder for us of the importance of talking. There is a great deal of focus on adults, but what about the children?
Knowing how to talk to your child about their mental health, or recognising the signs that they might be struggling, can be really difficult. Signs of depression or anxiety in children can sometimes look like normal behaviour, particularly in teenagers who can keep their feelings to themselves.
Realising that your child may be struggling with their mental health and experiencing anxiety or depression can be hard to accept. Sometimes parents can feel like it is their fault or want to know why their child is struggling with a mental health problem. This is completely understandable, but the most important thing you can do is to reassure your child and not judge them for how they are feeling.
Children are anxious because of the pace at which their brain develops. As a child is growing up they are absorbing and trying to interpret a vast amount of external stimuli, such as the environment of people, places, and items.
To complicate matters, the ability to cope with anxiety and worry does not develop until after adolescence. This is why a child, even a teenager, may throw a tantrum, because they feel the frustration of not being understood. A child does not begin to express thoughts and feelings until about age three. Usually, it is not until around the age of eight that they are able to do so with some coherence. In short, fear of the unknown is a very natural part of growing up. It is hardwired into a primitive part of the brain, called the amygdala. The brain also grows faster between birth and six than at any other time in life, which exacerbates anxiety levels further.
Children may understandably be concerned or worried by what they see, read or hear in the news regarding the Coronavirus pandemic. It is good to talk to them honestly and calmly about the issues. As parents we should not ignore or shield children from what is going on in the world. Children look to adults in their lives for comfort and reassurance when they are distressed. We should respond to their questions and concerns so that anxieties do not build up. One strategy is to start by asking them what they think is going on, if their friends are talking about it and if they have any questions.
Older children may have already read or seen a lot of information about the health concerns online. If they are feeling overwhelmed by what they are reading, encourage them to acknowledge what they are finding difficult. You could help them limit the amount of times they check the media and encourage them to get information from reputable websites. The Government website (gov.uk/coronavirus) is the most up-to-date and reliable source of information, and the NHS “Common Questions” has useful information if they are worried about symptoms or family members.
The website youngminds.co.uk has a useful list of tips for parents who wish to support their children who have worries:
- Try not to shield your child from the news, which is going to be nearly impossible at the moment. The amount of information on the internet about Coronavirus can be overwhelming, so ask your child about what they are seeing or hearing online and think together about reliable sources of information.
- Talk to your child about what is going on. Find out how they are feeling and what they are thinking about. Let them know it is acceptable to feel scared or unsure, and reassure them that this will pass. Try talking to them over text or on the phone if they do not feel able to talk in person (I often find talking to my children whilst I am driving works because they do not need to engage in eye contact).
- Try to answer their questions and reassure them in an age appropriate manner. Remember, you do not need to know all the answers, but talking can help them feel calm.
- Reassure your child that it is unlikely they will get seriously ill, and if they do feel ill you will look after them. Your child might be concerned about who will look after you if you catch the virus. Let them know the kind of support you have as an adult so that they do not feel they need to worry about you.
- Give some practical tips to your child about how they can look after themselves. For example, show them how to wash their hands properly, and remind them when they should be doing it.
- Keep as many regular routines as possible, so that your child feels safe and that things are stable.
- Spend time doing a positive activity with your child (such as reading, playing, painting or cooking) to help reassure them and reduce their anxiety. This is also a great way of providing a space for them to talk through their concerns, without having a ‘big chat’.
- Encourage your child to think about the things they can do to make them feel safer and less worried.
- Be aware that your child may want more close contact with you at this time and feel anxious about separation. Try to provide this support whenever possible.
- Remember to look after yourself too. If you yourself are feeling worried, or anxious about coronavirus, talk to someone you trust who can listen and support you.
As a school we will support families as much as we can. If you are worried about your child’s mental wellbeing please do not hesitate to contact their Class Teacher or Form Tutor.