As the veil of the pandemic lifts, it’s easy to assume that the difficulties of this unprecedented period are now firmly behind us. But in truth, our children need us now more than ever.
The mental wellbeing of our young people has deteriorated significantly.
Research published by NHS Digital reveals that 1 in 6 children were suffering mental health disorders last year, up from 1 in 9 in 2017. Nearly 40% of 6-16-year-olds felt that their mental health had worsened over the course of the previous four years, with incidents of eating disorders and difficulties sleeping on the rise.
Mental wellbeing charity The Centre for Mental Health also reports that 1.5 million children and young people in England will need support for their mental health as a direct result of the pandemic over the next three to five years.
These numbers paint a very stark picture.
“We can see that children have really suffered from not having peer and adult interactions,” explains Justine Briggs, a therapist, parent practitioner and coach at the Bucks Family Network. “The lack of people to communicate with, learn from and mirror has really shrunk over this period, therefore, insecurities have been allowed to grow in the comfort of secluded bedrooms.”
She explains that children’s brains are under construction and need to be guided and supported. “We are not creatures who thrive in isolation, we are at our best when we are part of a family and wider community.”
This was echoed by Nicola Holmes Brown, Charity Director of Donnington Doorstep, who spoke with us about the importance of “building protective factors for children, such as having a sense of belonging, positive role modelling and clear routines so that children have resilience to mental ill health” – some of these factors were lost during Covid resulting in fewer strategies to help children to manage their emotions.
And that is precisely why this year’s theme for Children’s Mental Health Week – taking place this week – is ‘Growing Together’. Led by mental wellbeing charity Place2Be, the aim is to focus minds on the exploration of emotional growth and finding ways to help each other to grow after a period of uncertainty.
At Inloco we understand the power and strength that can come from having a trusted support network, and how tapping into this can help nurture positive mental wellbeing and resilience, not only for our young people but also for us parents, helping us all to navigate this delicate next phase together.
So, with that in mind, we’ve spoken to national and local experts about what we as parents and carers can do to support our children through this next period of readjustment and to help heal any issues that may have already arisen:
Normalise difficult feelings:
“It’s important for parents to normalise difficult feelings and to model to their children healthy coping strategies,” says Dr Claire Brown, a counselling psychologist at Marlow-based Swift Mental Wellbeing. “Demonstrating that you feel angry too sometimes and explaining how you manage, or letting your children see you cry and know that you feel sad, is important. Life can be difficult and that’s normal and it’s ok; I often use the metaphor of seeing emotions as coming in waves, you just need to ride the wave and wait for it to pass.”
She adds that “parents often feel the need to rescue their children from difficult emotions, but sometimes they just need the validation and empathic understanding.” She advises using phrases such as “I can see how much you’re hurting”, as sometimes just sitting and giving them a cuddle is what they need, rather than a solution to the situation.
“I would encourage parents to try and think of all feelings as equal, rather than good and bad feelings,” she continues. “All feelings have a purpose, some may be more painful, but none of them are permanent – ride the wave!”
Experts at children’s mental health charity Young Minds recommend using the word ‘understandable’ in these conversations, to let children know they are entitled to their feelings. Most importantly, when they do open up, it is crucial to thank the child for sharing what’s going on and to be encouraging about the way they’ve opened up.
Lisa LLoyd, a chartered psychologist and psychotherapist, and founder of It’s Time For Change, suggests another option is to talk to children objectively about their problems and the reasons why their body is reacting the way it is and how normal that is. “We can help kids by explaining the brain to them and showing the bigger picture around how the brain is trying to adjust [to that particular stress factor],” she says. Lisa also recommends children’s breathing exercises as a powerful tool to help aid relaxation, increase children’s emotional control and improve concentration.
Make time to talk:
Carving out space within busy extracurricular schedules for ‘check-in-time’ can also help encourage children to unlock and process their feelings. Bucks Family Network’s Justine Briggs advises that it’s good to have a defined period of time each day where your child can discuss their fears, worries, mishaps and you listen and provide an open, safe space. This she says, should be time sensitive – and suggests limiting it to 20 minutes – as if it goes on too long it can become counter-productive.
Lisa LLoyd from It’s time for Change recommends using questions like: “What were you most proud of today?”, “What did you find tricky?” and “What were you worried about?” when having your daily check-ins.
Some children may find it difficult or unnatural to open up about their feelings, so creating relaxing opportunities where you do activities together can help to create that space for them to start talking. This could include going out for walks, doing exercise together, playing a board game, doing a jigsaw, crafting or baking together.
Allow space for failings:
Young people need to be allowed to fail. Justine Briggs warns that as parents and carers we shouldn’t try to mop up every mistake they make, assuming we are protecting them.
“We need to allow our children to feel the uncomfortableness of change and grow through that uncertainty – not everything in life can be planned out. Feeling a little embarrassed or unsure is part of learning to use our gut and develop good instincts. We must nurture development and allow for mistakes and misadventures”.
“Confidence is created by a strong core belief that we are ok, being knocked back and getting up, dusting ourselves off and getting stuck in again. Resilience is learning through our mistakes and building strong associations with ‘I fail but, in the end, I will succeed’.”
Holmes Brown explains further how “risk also builds resilience – if we are too risk averse, we take children’s ability to build up their resilience away”.
Dr Claire Brown warns parents and carers to also be mindful of children’s negative self-talk. “If you notice them putting themselves down, ask them if they would speak to a friend like that? Encourage them to show themselves the same kindness that they would show to others – they deserve it just the same.”
Creating physical representations of feelings, fears and comforts:
Physical representations of worries and comforts can be helpful for younger children to encourage them to process their emotions. Dr Claire Brown suggests creating a comfort box can be great for when children are feeling sad or distressed: “Get them to decorate a plain box and put things inside that they find comforting using all their senses – for example photos of friends/family/happy memories, their favourite chocolate or sweets, perhaps a soft blanket or cuddly toy, some distraction activities like colouring or puzzles, something that reminds them of their favourite smell. Post-it notes with motivational comments on or prompting them to listen to a certain song or watch a certain film that they enjoy. When they are upset, encourage them to sit down with you and look through the box.”
You can also buy worry monster toys or create worry jars, where you can encourage the child to write down or draw their worries and feed them to the monster or put them inside the jar. Once the worry has been eaten or is locked inside the jar it is then safe space to discuss the concern.
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. Place2Be also recommends an activity making support balloons to help children explore their support networks and how these people can lift them up and make them feel better.
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.
Meditation and yoga:
Meditation and yoga are often a go-to as adults when we need some timeout and a reset, but the same can be true for children. Helping our children to check back in with their bodies and pay attention to what it is feeling is a very powerful tool and there are lots of classes for children, both online and in-person, to tap into that will also enable you to share the experience with them. “It supports healing and calms the body’s stress response systems,” explains Justine Briggs.
Tap into your support network:
It may feel daunting but remember you’re not alone in this. Our personal support networks are a vital crutch when it comes to our own emotional wellbeing, and that of our children. Inloco is here to provide families with the support and childcare they need to manage day-to-day life and to enable each member of the family to flourish. ‘We know first hand just how tough it can be for parents, that’s why we created Inloco – so families can find the childcare help they need, when they need it ” says Hannah Co-Founder of Inloco and mum of three. Through Inloco communities families and local childcarers can connect and recommend each other, building circles of trusted childcare support.
With sincere thanks to the following contributors: Guest Writer Kat Spybey, Justine Briggs from Bucks Family Network, Nicola Holmes Brown of Donnington Doorstep, Dr Claire Brown from Marlow-based Swift Mental Wellbeing and Lisa LLoyd from It’s time for Change.
Other support resources:
Parents’ helpline and webchat: https://www.youngminds.org.uk/parent/parents-helpline-and-webchat/
A free app for teenagers (11+) providing resources and a fully-moderated community where you can share your problems, get support and help other people too.
A virtual friend for 8-11 year olds and their parents that helps families think about feelings and talk about difficult topics.
Offers support to anyone under 25 about anything that’s troubling them.
Email support available via their online contact form.
Free 1-2-1 webchat service available.
Bucks Family Network
Chiltern Music Therapy
01442 780 541
Swift mental wellbeing