Children’s mental health: Taking time to talk

Firstly, let’s all breathe a big collective sigh of relief, for January is now behind us!

Whatever your parenting challenge – whether it’s juggling home-schooling and work, trying to simultaneously entertain and educate children of different ages, coping with the isolation from your usual support network, or even all of the above – we have made it through what is often seen as the bleakest month of the year in a full lockdown. This is by no means a small feat.

And it hasn’t been an easy ride for our children either. Many are missing friends and family, their usual hobbies and daily routines, and perhaps are anxious or confused about how life and rules keep changing.

But the start of February brings with it an opportunity to pause for a moment and reflect on this, as this week marks the seventh annual Children’s Mental Health Week. This year, the week feels especially important. Run by children’s mental health charity Place2Be, it’s a chance for us to shine a spotlight on how admirably our children have been tackling the changes to their lives over the last year, and how we can continue to support them through what we all hope will be this last push to the finish line.

Despite the physical distances imposed on us, the key is that we’ve all found ways to get through it together – as members of the same family supporting one another, households ‘bubbling up’ to help, or with a wider circle of trusted carers lending a welcome hand.

But there’s still no escaping the fact that for many, the last 12 months have proved incredibly difficult, and we’re not out of the woods yet.

Research by children’s mental health charity Young Minds reveals that 80% of young people feel the pandemic has made their mental health worse, with this manifesting in feelings of anxiety, isolation, loss of coping mechanisms or loss of motivation. Some 87% also report having felt lonely or isolated during lockdowns, despite 71% having been able to stay in touch with friends.

A survey of teachers in June last year also found three-quarters believe school closures, while necessary to control the virus, had a negative impact on young people’s mental health.

Stevie Goulding, who runs the Young Minds Parents Helpline, explains that every child or young person will respond differently and have “a range of emotions hidden under the surface”.

“Some of the things you may see your child doing include acting out or having angry or aggressive outbursts, finding it difficult to calm down when they are distressed, withdrawing from friends, family, school and activities they usually enjoy and changes in their appetite and sleep patterns.”

“Your child may need more support at this time, so it’s important to reassure them that this situation will pass, and that you’re there for them and you will get through this together.”

It’s maintaining this sense of togetherness that will be so crucial. To support our children through these final weeks of lockdown and the gradual adjustment back towards some sense of ‘normality’, the power of our family, support networks and local communities – even when forced to support each other virtually rather than physically – is now more important than ever.

And the emphasis needs to be on talking. Talking about any concerns and anxieties, and finding ways to help our children draw out the emotions they have bubbling away inside. For this reason, the ability to express oneself is the core theme for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week.

Whether it’s spending time outdoors spotting the gradual advance of spring, getting messy and creative with each other, or prancing around the lounge as part of a Zoom kids disco with friends, finding ways to create relaxing opportunities for our children to process and voice their feelings is essential.

Getting out for a walk or playing sport together is often heralded as a great way to get children to take a breath and open up, especially if you leave some silent moments to create space for them to talk about anything that’s on their mind.

Yes, we’ve all spent the last few months with wellies on tramping around our local areas, but it doesn’t have to be yet another walk! This could also include more quirky ideas such as challenging your family to a bag-for-life sack race or building an assault course in the garden. If the weather is against you, maybe just try leaping about in your front room desperately trying to keep up with the latest Joe Wicks workout or Oti Mabuse’s Boogie Beebies, before collapsing in a heap on the floor togetherw

With most weekend and after-school hobbies now on hold, another option could be converting your child’s hobbies into a companionable home-based alternative, such as wastepaper bin basketball or the Lawn Tennis Association’s array of garden and indoor tennis substitutes. Sporting charity Greenhouse Sports, also launched a series of YouTube videos during the first lockdown enabling children to recreate elements of their favourite sports at home.

But if you’re not the sporty or outdoors type, music and crafts are also great healers and ways to get children to open up and express themselves creatively. The Place2Be charity explains: “When children are able to find creative ways to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas, it can help them to feel good about themselves and who they are.”

One of the charity’s suggestions is the ‘Squiggle game’ to encourage kids to de-stress and express themselves. Alternatively, the ‘Draw your feelings’ project enables children to express their feelings through pictures of how they feel inside.

Some local schools have adopted a similar idea by encouraging children to create mood monsters. Here the colours and facial expressions represent their feelings, providing an opening for conversations about mental health and any fears they might be harbouring. If your child is older, starting a journal could also be a useful tool to unlock confusing thoughts, making them easier to process and enabling you to talk to them about how to break each one down into manageable chunks.

But creative expression doesn’t need to be confined to a piece of paper. As the ever-wise Mary Berry is quoted as saying: “Cooking and baking is both physical and mental therapy.” So perhaps now is the time to start kneading the dough to make animal-shaped bread rolls or baking magical fairy cakes, enabling both an opportunity for escapism and for you to chat about any concerns whilst you tuck into your achievements.

But if all this feels like yet more ideal activities to throw into the mix of an already stressful week juggling home-schooling and work, remember you’re not alone. This is where your trusted support network – whether that’s via Zoom or face-to-face – can help.

With childcare bubbles permitted under current lockdown restrictions, you can still turn to family for support or bubble with one other household to help lighten each other’s childcare load.

Inloco is also here to help you find a temporary nanny or virtual tutor, trusted by your circle of friends and other local childcarers. Perhaps they could focus on a particular activity your child is showing a passion for, providing dedicated time for them to explore their own interests away from home-schooling and helping to break up their day? Virtual tutors and temporary childcarers – who are allowed in your home under current regulations – are also available to take the pressure off home-schooling and inject some fresh ideas into the day, sharing their own creative hobbies. They have the ability to give you some precious time back, whether that is to focus on work, another child’s needs or maybe even yourself for once. Happy children need happy parents after all.

Crucially, right now, we all need to give ourselves a bit of a break. There are still a few weeks of lockdown ahead of us, so let’s go easy on ourselves, focus on the short-term goals and celebrate the small wins. Tap into your support circles and don’t think twice about reaching out for help. Life is tough right now, and however you find ways to talk to your child and encourage them to open up, you’ll be making a big difference to their wellbeing now during this lockdown and in the future.

As the artist and author Charlie Mackesy, who has inspired and uplifted many during this pandemic through his book ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’, extolls: “When the big things feel out of control, focus on what you love right under your nose.”

 

How to talk to your child about mental health:

“It’s really important to try and talk to your child, let them know that you understand why they might be finding things difficult,” says Young Minds’ Stevie Goulding.

“Validate their feelings by reflecting back the words they use, be their anchor by providing structure, routine and reassurance and think together about what helps them cope with difficult feelings”.

“Remind them that it’s okay for them to feel scared or unsure about things right now and try to reassure them in an age-appropriate manner. Remember, you do not need to have all the answers to their problems but talking things through can help them feel calmer. Encourage them to reflect on how they’re feeling and think about things they can do to make themselves better”.

“Your child may need more support at this time, so it’s important to reassure them that this situation will pass, and that you’re there for them and you will get through this together.”

“If you think they’re feeling lonely or missing their friends, encourage them to keep in touch with them through phone and video calls. It’s important for them to stay connected during lockdown, and it may help to talk to others about how they’re feeling and to take their mind off things.”

“You could also encourage them to find hobbies or interests that will help ease the anxiety they’re feeling – even simple things like playing online games safely with others, or downloading an app like MeeTwo [an app aimed at helping children to talk anonymously to similar-aged children about their mental health], where young people can make new friends and discover positive online communities, can help.”

 

Ways to access support:

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