A guide to children’s mental health

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What exactly is mental health? The phrase means different things to different people. Some people think about conditions like anxiety or depression, while others see it as our emotional, social and psychological wellbeing.

All these things can form part of our mental health and affects how we think, feel or act.

Just like with physical health, you and your family will have times when your mental health is good and times when it’s not so good — and that’s ok.

Many parents don’t feel confident in talking to their children about mental health, so hopefully this article will provide you with small tips that you can incorporate into family life to help start that conversation.

Spotting the signs

You may be thinking: “If I’m not a professional, how am I supposed to recognise that someone I care about is suffering with their mental health?”

The good news is, you don’t have to be a professional. Knowing a person, and recognising that things have changed, can be very powerful. Here are some simple signs to look out for, which can help us spot whether a partner, child, parent, friend or colleague might be struggling.

  • Long lasting periods of sadness or irritability, unusual for that individual
  • Extreme highs and lows in mood, for no obvious reason
  • Excessive fear, worry or anxiety about situations or things which don’t normally bother them
  • They isolate themselves and avoid social situations, if out of character or more than normal
  • Dramatic change in eating or sleeping habits

Just remember these are only signs and not a diagnosis of a mental health issue. They can be a useful way of opening-up a conversation with that person, to let them know you’ve noticed a change and are looking out for them.

Five ways to wellbeing

The UK Government’s Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project developed a set of ‘Five ways to wellbeing’. These are evidenced–based actions, from worldwide research, which can help us all improve our wellbeing.

We can implement these as adults, as families together or even empower our children to do them.

1. Connect

Human beings are social creatures, so staying connected plays an important part in our wellbeing. It provides us with a support network, reduces stress and helps build a sense of belonging and self-worth.

Try arranging a fixed time to spend together as a family, such as eating dinner or playing a game.

We use technology to maintain our relationships, but it’s also important to disconnect from the screen too. A ‘digital curfew’ of one or two hours before bed could help your child fall asleep faster and improve their sleep quality and wellbeing.

2. Be active

Did you know that getting even just a bit more active on a regular basis can have a positive effect on our mood? Why not try a 10-minute walk, a game of frisbee or just dance around the house like no-one is watching? Anything which gets you moving.

The knock–on effect is that you might sleep better and feel less stressed or anxious because exercise releases the ‘happy’ hormones called endorphins.

3. Take notice

Family life can be hectic, but paying attention to the present moment can improve your mental wellbeing.

Make space in the day with your child to go through all your senses — what can you see, smell, feel, hear and touch. This only takes one minute and can be done on a walk to school, in the car, when eating dinner or any time.

Taking notice also includes your thoughts and feelings. Create an opportunity in the day to open up a safe space to listen to how your child is feeling and to their concerns.

4. Give

Just one simple act of giving can help to lift your spirits. As a family, it is a great way of helping you all feel connected amongst yourselves and with the wider community.

You can try making cards, as a family, for someone who is ill. You could consider giving up one of your birthdays and fundraising for a charity of your choice.

You can also role model these behaviours, and encourage your children to do one small thing a week.

Other ideas can be simply smiling at a stranger or volunteering your time at a food bank or a care home. The more you give, the better your overall wellbeing.

5. Keep learning

There are lots of ways to bring learning into your family’s life. Set challenges, work on puzzles together or try different recipes each month (we have some yummy and healthy ones to try).

Maybe even take some time today to continue reading about mental health and talking to your family about it. Learning new skills can help you and your family’s self-esteem and sense of purpose, while helping you to connect with others.

Key sources & further reading

Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project

NHS: Every Mind Matters

NHS: Mental health services

15 May, 2023

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