Should I be worried about my child's mental health?

Huge thanks to Dr Maryhan Baker, our guest blogger this month, who will be giving a talk on 'Identifying Anxiety in Children' on Thursday 17 November at Clifton College, Bristol. More details about the event can be found here. Tickets are just £18.

There has been a great deal of focus on children’s mental health in recent years with statistics now showing one in four children will experience a significant mental health challenge before the age of sixteen years. With these stark statistics as a background it can be very difficult as a parent to establish whether your child is experiencing any difficulties and how to help them if they are.  Whilst there are no specific hard and fast rules, there are some clear warning signs, which might indicate your child is less than psychologically fit, and some simple activities you can do to help.
 
Establishing whether there’s a problem
These are the five main warning signs, which might indicate your child has a mental health issue. These are not exhaustive but the most common indicators:

  1. Mood changes; these can be intense feelings of sadness, anxiety, or mood swings
  2. Changes in behaviour; this might be getting very angry very quickly or behaving in a way which is totally out of character
  3. Difficulty concentrating; struggling to sit still or focus on a task from start to finish
  4. Physical symptoms; they might tell you they have a stomach ache, headache or generally feel unwell
  5. Difficulty sleeping; your child struggles to fall asleep at night, wakes repeatedly, or says they always feel tired.

Strategies to help
 
1. Believe in your child's ability to overcome
Your child might be scared of sleeping alone right now, but if you show him you believe it is something which they an overcome, you create a more empowering sauce. It is perfectly normal to experience stress and anxiety in life, by normalizing it and letting your child know it won’t last forever you take away any isolation they may feel.  
 
2. Acknowledge the emotion behind the behaviour
This helps all children, but is particularly important for anxious children who need to know that their feelings are valid. You might not be able to understand or relate to your child's anxiety around friendships, for example, but your empathy validates your child's feelings which is an important first step. Dismissing a child's feelings by telling them there's nothing to worry about only leads to more anxiety and a feeling that their emotions are somehow abnormal or wrong.  
 
3. Discuss the physical side of anxiety
Explain to your child how anxiety is our bodies alarm system, dating back to the time of sabre tooth tigers. We needed a way of being alerted to danger quickly so we could run away and avoid being eaten. Although the sabre tooth tigers are now gone the alarm system is still there and it sometimes goes off when there is no real danger. 
 
4. Problem solve bespoke solutions
Each child needs their own set of tools and strategies for dealing with their unique anxiety. Talking to your child about what they could do to help themselves when they experience anxiety is key to helping them cope in the future. Encourage them to come up with their own solutions, rather than you imposing your ideas on them.
 
5. Learn to recognise the difference between behaviour and anxiety
All our behaviour is driven by our emotions and with anxiety this can be significantly heightened. The key differences which differentiate anxiety driven behaviour from behaviour which pushes boundaries is the motive behind anxious behaviour is protection rather than a deliberate disregard of rules.