Children’s Mental Health Week: 15 ways to support youngsters as we emerge from the pandemic
Isolation, missed school, very possibly bereavement and sheer scariness – children have faced all this through the pandemic and it’s had a devastating impact on many of them.
Over the last three years, the likelihood of youngsters having a mental health problem has increased by 50% according to The Children’s Society, while the NHS estimates one in six children aged five to 16 have mental health issues.
Now Children’s Mental Health Week (February 7-13) is aiming to help them, through its theme of Growing Together, encouraging children (and adults) to consider how they’ve grown, and how they can help others to grow.
The week is run by the children’s mental health charity Place2Be, whose regional clinical lead Cecilia Corbetta says: “For many children, the pandemic has had a significant impact on their mental health, with a rise in self-harm, suicide ideas and eating disorders, as well as general anxiety and difficulties with peer relationships. Many parents have also felt overwhelmed and lonely.
“But at the same time, we see how parents and children have built resilience and developed new strategies through overcoming these challenges.”
Research by The Children’s Society has found the aspects of life that children coped less well with were not seeing friends (28%) and family (24%), and not being able to do their hobbies (27%).
Joanna Hunt, head of The Children’s Society’s emotional wellbeing and mental health youth practice programmes, says: “The pandemic has thrown children’s lives into disarray and profoundly affected their home and school lives.
“There are a number of children who might need more help to assist with their recovery from the pandemic. What’s more, NHS data for 2021 suggests one in six children have a mental health condition, and this figure hasn’t improved since 2020.
“Even before the pandemic, we had seen a deeply distressing downward trend relating to children’s wellbeing, which has potentially disastrous consequences for children. It’s so important that young people who are feeling unhappy have somewhere to go to so they can talk their problems through.”
Place2Be and The Children’s Society suggest these ways to support children’s mental health as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic to resume a normal life again…
1. Think about your child’s needs
Children have been affected in very different ways by the pandemic, says Corbetta. “Focus on listening and creating opportunities for your child to open up and express their feelings,” she advises, pointing out that you might get different responses from different children in your family.
2. Encourage positivity
It’s common for everyone – children and adults – to feel anxiety about doing things they haven’t done for a while, explains Corbetta, who advises: “Encourage your child to approach things they’ve got out of the habit of doing with a positive attitude or outlook.” An example of this could be saying something like, ‘I think you’re going to have a great time at swimming.’
3. Acknowledge coping strategies you’ve already developed
Remember that overcoming challenges can help boost resilience, and take time to acknowledge the coping strategies you and your child or children have developed and used during the pandemic, suggests Corbetta.
4. Spend unstructured time together
Hunt says: “It can be difficult when you’re busy, but spending time doing nothing with your child, without multi-tasking, is really important.”
5. Create regular opportunities to listen
Use doing an activity together or a walk, or car journey, as an opportunity to listen to your child. “Sometimes they may find it easier to open up when there’s less pressure on them to do so,” explains Corbetta, but she warns: “Be mindful of changes in your child’s behaviour, and be curious as to what they’re communicating.”
6. Eat together regularly
Hunt suggests parents and children sit down together for a meal at least a few times a week to chat. “If you can’t eat together, sit down and talk over a cup of tea,” she says.
7. Be creative
Think of different ways to encourage children to express themselves – they might want to show how they feel through play and art, suggests Corbetta.
8. Don’t undermine their feelings
“Listen, but try not to minimise their feelings by saying things like, ‘You don’t need to be scared’,” says Corbetta, “Show understanding and empathy by naming their feelings.”
And Hunt adds: “Don’t belittle their worries. If it’s important in your child’s life, then it’s important.”
9. Reassure them if they’re anxious
Corbetta says parents should make it clear they’ve noticed children’s feelings of anxiety about returning to pre-pandemic life, and reassure them that such feelings are normal.
10. Model openness about feelings
Be open with your child about how you manage difficult emotions, suggests Corbetta. So you might, for example, say, ‘I’m feeling a bit worried about going back to the office, so I’m going to take some deep breaths to help me be calm.’
11. Enter their world
Look at what your children watch and do, and ask questions about it, says Hunt. Watch a film of their choice; browse the websites they’re visiting, or watch their favourite TV show with them. “Be careful not to just dismiss everything they’re consuming,” she advises, “and get them to think about the messages behind what they’re watching.”
12. Re-establish routines
Remember mental health relies on physical routines, and Corbetta stresses: “Having a predictable routine can help children feel secure. Take time to gradually reintroduce activities you used to do pre-pandemic.”
13. Don’t give up
Sometimes children and young people don’t want to talk to their parents about what’s bothering them, but you shouldn’t always take no for an answer, says Hunt. “Make sure you understand what’s happening from their point of view and how it’s making them feel. It can be helpful for parents to then put things in perspective – but listen carefully before jumping in.”
14. Give it time
Hunt points out that worrying or difficult behaviour can simply happen while children are adjusting to a change in their life or trying out new emotions, and it will often pass.
15. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Seek support from friends, family or a professional if you need to. “Nobody has all the answers,” says Corbetta.
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