Health & Wellbeing

Looking after your child’s mental health

Young people throughout Australia are dealing with mental health issues and the figures are too high to ignore.

Research undertaken by headspace in 2018 has revealed that nearly one in three young Australians are reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress. This is nearly triple the rate in 2007. The mental health organisation also approximates that a quarter of young people in Australia will experience a mental health issue and according to Beyond Blue, about half of all serious mental health issues in adulthood actually begin before the age of 14. These are distressing figures, especially for parents.

While headspace works with children and adolescents from ages 12 to 25, there can be concerns with children from as young as three or four. According to the Raising Children Network, mental health is “the way children think or feel about themselves and the world around them. It’s related to how children cope with life’s challenges and stresses”. Children with good mental health should feel good about themselves, connect with their education, have healthy and stable relationships with their peers and loved ones, be able to manage their feelings, and understand that they can bounce back from tough times. However, as the evidence supports, not all children can cope with everything.

What to look for

“As a parent, it can be hard to know the difference between normal behaviour, such as occasional moodiness and irritability, and an emerging mental health issue,” Nick Duigan, Senior Clinical Advisor at headspace says. “Feeling down, tense, angry, anxious or moody are all normal behaviours of young people, but when these feelings persist for long periods of time (and if they begin to interfere with daily life) they may be cause for concern.”

Things to look out for include:

  • Being less interested in activities they would normally enjoy
  • Changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
  • Being easily irritated or angry
  • Difficulties with motivation or concentration
  • Unusual stress or concern, feeling down or crying for no apparent reason
  • Expressing negative, distressing or out-of-character thoughts

What can you do?

What’s important is to be there for your child. “Take the time to listen to them and to understand their experiences. Check that you have understood them by asking questions,” Duigan says. “Avoid telling them to ‘just relax’ or ‘calm down’ - it’s not that easy. Reassure the young person that they are not alone and let them know they can talk to you about what’s going on.”

Be patient. Young children and people who are struggling with their mental health may need more time to process their emotions than others, and they also need to be ready to accept help. Always be honest and above all else, reassure them that you love them. Duigan emphasises that you should “ensure the young person knows you love and care for them and that they can speak to you anytime about how they’re feeling (it’s always helpful to remind people you love them).”

Practical tips

Young children will need guidance, so ensure they are staying active, getting enough sleep and eating well. Encourage open and honest communication by talking about how you’re feeling and using easy words such as ‘sad’, ‘angry’ and ‘worried’. Put these into context so younger children can understand. For example, ‘I feel sad when someone hurts me, does that make you sad too?’

For older kids, apps such as Smiling Mind, Conversation Builder and Digital Problem Solver are all designed to help children manage stress, learn how to communicate well and figure out how to identify their feelings. The Calm app has a kid’s section, with sleep stories, lullabies and meditations designed specifically for children. There’s also the Headspace app with a specifically-dedicated Meditation for Kids section, separated into age groups.

Kids are resilient, and with the right support and tools they can not only respond to life’s challenges in a healthy and positive way, but they can thrive and grow alongside anything that life throws at them. Being a kid is not as easy as it looks, and we all need to remember that children are trying to deal with very big emotions. Sometimes they need a little help along the way.

The health information contained in this document is not a substitute for advice from a qualified medical or other health professional. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any health problem. Always consult your medical practitioner or other health professional in relation to any medical issue or concern, before changing your diet, starting an exercise program, or taking medication or supplements of any kind.

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