The more we learn about mental health, the clearer it becomes that a lot of mental health problems start in childhood. Many adults who have experienced mental health issues say that their troubles began when they were children, but they did not then have the experience, knowledge, or resources to get help. In some cases, adults have even dismissed mental health symptoms in children as ‘phases’, or ‘moods’.
These days, we are getting a lot better at distinguishing between normal childhood mood swings and serious mental health problems. Unfortunately, this also means that it’s becoming worryingly clear just how much of an issue mental health can be for our children. Every year, more and more parents are seeking out counsellors for child mental health problems.
CAN COUNSELLING HELP WITH CHILDHOOD MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES?
The good news is that counselling for children is often very effective. Getting a mental health diagnosis early in life is useful, as younger people have plenty of time to work with a counsellor on learning techniques and methods which can help. Children can start healing quickly, and move on with their lives without having to struggle for years with undiagnosed symptoms.
Many parents or guardians blame themselves when a child becomes mentally ill. However, the causes of most mental illnesses are very unclear and may well be beyond a parent’s control. Genetics, for example, can play a big part in the development of mental health issues, as can problems at school or online. So, if you’re one of the many parents or guardians all over the world who is caring for a mentally ill child, do not blame yourself for their condition. Concentrate instead on helping them to reach and maintain good mental health.
NURTURING GOOD MENTAL HEALTH IN A CHILD
You can’t alter your child’s genes, and you can’t control every aspect of their life. It’s hard, but your child will sometimes be affected by things beyond your control. What you can do is help your child to build up mental resilience which will aid them in overcoming these challenges. Here are some ways in which you can do this:
• Help them to build supportive relationships. A good support network and friends to rely upon are keystones for good mental health. But that doesn't mean you should start forcing your children to go to every single children's social event on offer. Bear in mind that we all have different social needs. Quieter and more introverted children may be stressed out by a lot of pressure to join clubs, go to parties, talk to new people etc. Remember, it’s not the quantity of friends your child has. It’s the quality. Nurture and encourage friendships your children make, but don’t force uncomfortable social situations upon them.
• Encourage their self-esteem. Self-esteem is based on a realistic and compassionate view of oneself. In order to encourage self-esteem, show your child that they are loved. Praise them when they do well, and help them to improve when they do things poorly. Encourage them to set realistic goals, and help them towards those goals. Most importantly, accept them for who they are.
• Listen. If your children have something important to tell you about how they’re feeling or troubles they may be experiencing, listen to them. Talking and seeking help are crucial skills your child will need in the future if they start developing mental health issues. Priming them at an early age for positive experiences of sharing their feelings lays a foundation which could stand them in very good stead later in life.
• Help them to help themselves. ‘Helicopter parenting’ can ultimately be bad for your child’s mental health. Adult life is not easy, and children who are not adequately prepared for the trials and tribulations the world will throw at them may suffer. Mental resilience is important for good mental health and, in order to develop mental resilience, children need to learn how to stand up to the pressures of everyday life. This doesn’t mean that you should throw them in at the deep end and let them fend for themselves – it means encouraging them to find constructive solutions to their own problems, perhaps by talking those problems through with friends or family. Of course, you can (and probably should!) step in when these problems get overwhelming.
• Encourage healthy lifestyle habits. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, sleeping well, and getting a decent amount of exercise aren’t just good for physical health. They’re also vital for mental health. Habits learned in childhood stick around, so try to encourage healthy lifestyle habits from the get-go.
• Monitor their media and internet usage. There’s an increasing body of evidence to show that too much time spent on social media can be bad for developing minds. Cyberbullying and media pressures can have a big impact upon the mental health of young people. However, as the internet is also a vital aspect of how modern children communicate and forge social bonds, it’s a mistake to ban the internet completely. If you can, compromise by setting rules and boundaries, and monitoring your child’s online activity for anything which doesn’t seem healthy.
You can also help by being your child’s advocate if they do ever struggle with their mental health. If they should ever need a young person’s counsellor, you can help by finding them one. Children aren’t able to voice their own needs or seek out their own help in the way that adults are. Perhaps the best thing that parents and guardians can do for a child who is struggling with their mental health is to believe in their symptoms, respect their needs, and help them to get the help they need.
Next month sees Children's Mental Health Week – a time when we can put our heads together and work on creating a brighter, mentally healthier future for children and young people.