Every parent wants their children to be happy and healthy. Childhood mental illness is one of the most agonising things a family can go through.
Parents with concerns about their child’s mental health are usually (and understandably) desperate to get help as soon as is humanly possible.
However, nothing is clear-cut in the field of mental health, and this is particularly true where children are concerned. A lot of behaviours we’d worry about in adults are actually quite normal for kids. Google ‘how to tell if my child is mentally ill’, and up pop lists of symptoms to watch out for. These include things like:
• mood swings,
• intense emotions,
• changes in behaviour,
• weight changes.
All of these could be causes for concern…but they could also be normal aspects of child development. Some readers will recognise these ‘symptoms’ in their teenage selves!
On the other hand, genuine mental illness can easily pass unnoticed in children. Many adults who have gone through mental illnesses will tell you that their symptoms began in childhood. Yet nobody realised until years later that they were ill – either because these children masked their symptoms, or because they simply didn’t understand that anything was wrong until they were old enough to know themselves a little better.
Children who struggle with things like anxiety disorders can be astonishingly good at hiding their condition from the eyes of others. Most children are anxious to ‘fit in’ with their families and peers, and will go to great lengths to hide their troubles.
Often, mentally ill children will know that they are suffering, or feel acutely that they don’t ‘fit in’, but they won’t realise that the issue is an illness – that it’s not their ‘fault’. They may neither understand nor be able to express what’s going on inside their heads.
All of which can leave parents very confused and worried. Is your child’s troubling behaviour ‘just a phase’? Or is there something deeper going on? How can you tell?
TALK TO YOUR CHILD
Firstly, and most importantly, talk to your child about how they’re feeling.
Although they may not be able to tell you clearly what (if anything) is wrong, it’s still important to get their perspective. Sometimes, the clue is not in what they say, it’s in the way that they say it.
Even if your child isn’t mentally ill, you may discover a problem which is causing them to act out. Trouble at school, for example. It’s worth noting that things like bullying can have serious long-term mental health effects on both the bullied and the bully, so it’s really important to talk to your child about this kind of thing, and gently nip it in the bud if you discover anything worrying.
TALK TO OTHERS WHO KNOW YOUR CHILD
Question others who know your child, particularly if they see your child in a context you don’t. The obvious port of call here is their school or nursery. Teachers and nursery staff not only know your child well, they also have plenty of experience in child development. They can give a perspective that’s both personal and professional.
TALK TO YOUR GP
If you think that there are grounds for concern (or even if you’re not sure – better safe than sorry!), make an appointment with your GP. While they may not provide you with an immediate diagnosis, they can refer you to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). CAMHS can then give your child a professional assessment and decide whether or not they qualify for NHS treatment.
Be prepared; waiting lists for NHS mental health services can be long. A lot of parents will be anxious to get help as soon as possible. So, you may decide to opt for a private counsellor.
FINDING A COUNSELLOR THAT'S RIGHT FOR YOUR CHILD
Finding an independent child therapist can be bewildering. Many are unsure of how to get mental health help for their children without the help of the NHS.
Don’t worry – it’s really not as confusing as it seems at first glance! You can find some general guidelines on seeking out a good counsellor here. However, there are some things that it’s important to remember when you’re heading into child therapy:
• FOCUS ON THE THERAPEUTIC RELATIONSHIP
There are a lot of therapeutic approaches out there. CBT, DBT, psychoanalytic…the list goes on. It’s very easy to get blinded by complex theories!
But the really, truly crucial thing about counselling is actually very simple. The most important thing to look for in a child therapist is the basic, human connection they form with your child.
So, when you’re looking into therapy for children, don’t get bogged down in the theoretical detail of counselling approaches. Most counsellors will be trained in several approaches, anyway. The most important thing to consider is how well your child bonds with the counsellor. Your child is much, much more likely to benefit from therapy if they gel with their counsellor – whatever form that therapy takes!
So, look for someone that your child engages with. Someone with a genuine empathy for and interest in your child.
A good counsellor should offer an initial trial session, during which you can gauge an idea of how the therapeutic relationship will pan out.
• DON'T FORGET YOURSELF!
Parents or caregivers are often involved in child counselling sessions. The younger the child, the more likely this will be. So, it’s really important not only that your child forms a bond with their counsellor, but that you do as well.
Look for someone who empathises with you, who won’t ‘take sides’, and who will be your ally.
• BE ENCOURAGING
When you do find a counsellor for your child, to be positive about the process. The therapeutic journey isn’t smooth for anyone, and children may find it difficult at first. It’s hard for kids to focus on the long-term gains which counselling brings, and children sometimes get frustrated when they don’t feel improvement right away. They may need a bit of adult perspective and encouragement to help them stick with the programme.
Above all, do not despair! Our love for our children makes it extremely upsetting when they fall ill. But neither you nor your child are alone. Accredited counsellors have helped many, many children through mental health difficulties. We hope that the right counsellor can help your child, too.