Looking after your child’s physical health is often a case of keeping up-to-date with doctor’s appointments and vaccinations, but taking care of their mental health can be a lot more tricky.
Worryingly, figures show that young people’s wellbeing is currently on the decline. According to a new report from The Children’s Society, more than 300,000 UK children were estimated to be unhappy with their lives before the pandemic.
The charity are now warning of a “deeply distressing” downward trend in wellbeing, with 6.7% of children aged 10 to 15 not happy with their lives overall in 2018-2019, up from 3.8% in 2009-2010.
As a parent, there are things you can do to support a child who is struggling with stress, anxiety and low mood. These include practical strategies, lifestyle changes and in some cases, the right professional support.
1. Prioritise outdoor play
Excessive screen time for children is an emerging concern, with research showing that children below the age of 14 are spending an average of 23 hours a week looking at devices. One way to combat this is to schedule outdoor activities into their daily routines, such as a nature walk or game of football in the park.
“Children are more creative when exposed to nature; they can use all their senses rather than just sight and sound,” says Becky Ward, education experience specialist at global tutoring company Tutor Doctor. “This provides a different stimulation as opposed to being sat in a classroom or online learning at home.”
Ward says an unstructured style of outdoor play also “allows children to interact meaningfully” with their peers and surroundings.
And as well as reducing stress and fatigue, she says being outside promotes creativity and imagination.
2. Build a meditation practice
Mindfulness is a word that’s everywhere now – and while it might seem like a flashy wellness trend, it can really help kids to slow down and appreciate the ‘now’.
One study, published in 2012, found that mindful activities such as meditation can improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people.
“Taking the time to notice what’s around them, as well as the way they are feeling is something that we know can really improve children’s wellbeing,” says Richard Crellin, policy and research manager at Children’s Society.
The Headspace app is a useful resource for parents to lean on. They have a whole raft of specific activities and exercises for children that teach them the basics of mindfulness in a fun and engaging way.
3. Journal thoughts
You can’t protect your child from every negative experience, but you can help them to process the stress in a healthy way, which will set them up for success in the future.
Journalling is a good outlet for them to express their thoughts, feelings and worries – especially if they are reluctant to speak to someone. Experts say this can help them to organise and process their worries in a clear and structured way.
Asking kids to write down a handful of things they’re grateful for at the end of a journalling session can help them to maintain a positive outlook.
4. Encourage them to talk about feelings
“Sometimes it’s good to open up a chat about mental health when you’re not actually face-to-face with your child – maybe you’re next to each other in the front seats of a car, or you’re on a walk,” advises Crellin.
“It’s really important that parents have conversations with their children and take the time to listen to their concerns.”
The key thing here, he says, is to treat any worries with thought and care, even if they seem silly to you as an adult. “Don’t dismiss them or minimise them,” he stresses.
What to do if your child is struggling
“If you are feeling that you can’t manage the situation alone and you have concerns for your child, there’s so much help out there,” assures Crellin.
“The charity Young Minds is a good place to start; they have a parents’ helpline during the week that is brilliant for a chat with an expert about what’s going on for your young person and how you might be able to help them.”
He continues: “If you’re really concerned, it’s always good to go and speak to your GP. As a parent, you might want to do this on your own, as it’s really important to make sure your child is comfortable to speak to the GP.”
In some cases, Crellin says that they might prefer to talk to a teacher or youth worker, or even another adult in the family such as an aunt or uncle.
“It’s about trying to find that person that they feel comfortable sharing their feelings with and then working from there.”
He concludes: “Your NHS GP will help you to access mental health services, but waiting lists are quite long, so it’s important to think about how you’re going to support your child during that waiting period.”