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Young boy laying on the floor amongst toys looking sad

How do I know if my child is suffering with their mental health?

February 9, 2024

We recently spoke to renowned mental health expert, Babalwa Madikazi about how to spot whether your child is struggling. Babalwa is Head of Children and Young People therapy, and a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and EMDR Practitioner at Onebright.

How do I know if my child is suffering with their mental health?

One in six children aged 5-16 are likely to experience some form of a mental health issue. This figure has risen by 50% in the last three years perhaps due to various external stressors such as the Covid-19 pandemic, greater impact of social media and increased costs of living.

Little girl struggling with her mental health, sat on the floor crying with a teddy

One of the most common mental health conditions is anxiety and depression. However, it can be very difficult for young people, their families, and carers to know whether they are showing signs and symptoms of this, or just mimicking normal developmental behaviour.  Whilst conditions have increased, young people are still not overly familiar with the variety of support available to them. This is something I am very keen to help children, young people, their families, and carers with.

A Mind report also showed that children and young people who experience mental health issues do not feel familiar with sources of support, and therefore did not feel supported. They also felt that receiving help came with a stigma.

What should I be looking out for?

Undiagnosed, children can be at risk of encountering worse mental health as they grow older. As such, using early intervention and evidence-based care at the right time to tackle issues is essential. Some tell-tale signs of a problem deeper than normal developmental changes include:

  • Consistently low mood or unhappiness
  • Issues with motivation or concentrating and/or struggling in school
  • Expressing irritability (young people with depression often display this rather than sadness)
  • No longer enjoying activities they used to like doing
  • Social withdrawal and not engaging with family and friends.
  • Experiencing low self-esteem for prolonged periods.
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
  • Difficult behaviour affecting family and friendships
  • Loss of energy and fatigue
  • Temper outbursts

It’s important to get help early if you think your child may be showing signs of problems with their mental health, such as depression or anxiety. This will help to prevent such issues from turning into long-term and persistent ones into adulthood, In a recent YoungMinds survey, 75 per cent of parents said that their child’s mental health had deteriorated while waiting for support from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).

Providing emotional support to your child / young person

If you feel concerned about your child’s mental well-being, the first steps to helping your child through a difficult time involve providing emotional support and listening to their feelings and issues.

Empathy is key to understanding the root cause of the problem. This could include issues with friendships, familial changes such as divorce, bullying at school, or a combination of factors.

It is also important to emphasise the support available to your child, identify key people your child feels safe to reach out when they are struggling. Remind them that they are not alone.

Build and prioritise a family well-being routine. This could include eating healthy meals together, spending quality time with loved ones, and a healthy sleep routine giving your child or young person 8-10 hours of sleep every night.

What can I do to help my child?

Dad is listening to his daughter whilst drinking a cup of tea

  • Make time to listen and talk to your child – select a safe space where they feel they can easily communicate their feelings. Some children and young people may find it easier to talk while doing an activity together.  Cooking, playing a game, going for a walk, etc. are a great start.

  • Provide reassurance that you are listening, and you are there to support them. Be open and honest that if you do not know how best to help them overcome the problem, you will ensure that they get the right support, including professional support.

  • Observe your child or young person: Look out for symptoms that your child’s mental health may be deteriorating. This can include symptoms of anxiety and low mood or worrying changes in behaviour. Check if they are accessing material online, such as, self-harm, suicide or pro-eating disorders. Seek specialist health advice and support.

  • Encourage your child or young person to engage in positive activities to prevent isolating themselves: Positive activities such exercise, hobbies, connecting with others, often provide a sense of pleasure and achievement. Activities give a child or young person something to look forward to. They can help to distract them from their worries and more importantly support their recovery and building their confidence.

  • Structure and routine are key – to reset their biological clock (sleeping and waking up time, going to school and engaging in day-to-day activities). This helps to improve mood.

Seek professional support

If your child’s situation is not improving over time and you are worried about their long-term well-being, it is important to investigate seeking professional support. Some children and young people will need professional or specialised help at some point in their lives, and this typically includes seeing a therapist, psychiatrist.

Speaking to your GP is the first step to accessing mental health services and for general advice regarding treatment options. However, unprecedented demand for mental health services in recent years has resulted in a huge strain on the healthcare system. This is making prevention and early intervention more difficult.

The benefits of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in managing mental health problems

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help manage mental health issues. It can reduce the severity of symptoms and prevent further issues in the future. For children and young people, this means your child can receive effective and targeted care. This approach may enhance your child’s normal growth and development, improve their quality of life, and enjoy greater resilience as adults.

Dice with CBT on them

What is CBT?

CBT is an evidence-based psychological treatment proven to work on a wide variety of emotional and mental health problems. This includes depressive and anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and trauma. It also includes addictions, and more serious illnesses such as psychosis and bipolar affective disorder.

It is a goal-based therapy that is based on the idea that our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviours are interlinked. Therefore, if we make changes to the way we think about situations and what we do, then we can impact how we are feeling and make a positive psychological impact.

Most importantly, CBT is a flexible treatment which means it can be tailored to specific disorders and individuals. CBT requires therapists to have a deep understanding of their client and their needs. Everyone has a different story, different situations, different personalities and traits. This means everyone’s struggle with their mental health is also different. CBT does allow variation, so it can be an effective therapy for everyone.

There is plenty of mental health support for children and young people. Spotting the signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions, as well as recognising when behaviours are out of the ordinary for your child. These .all help to get your child the right support they need as quickly as possible.

Addressing mental health concerns early in their journey to better mental health, enables children and young people to build resilience into adulthood. 

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