Over the past five years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of children experiencing mental health issues. According to the NHS, the percentage of 7 to 16-year-olds with probable mental health disorders has increased from 12% in 2017 to 18% by the end of 2022. For 17 to 19-year-olds, the rise has been even more significant, from 10% in 2017 to 26% by the end of 2022. This highlights the urgent need for parents to be equipped with the knowledge and tools to support their children’s mental well-being.

Identifying mental health problems in children can be challenging as parents may struggle to differentiate between typical behaviours and developmental stages and actual mental health conditions. Each child’s experience of mental health difficulties will be unique to their personality and age, and they may not always be able to articulate their feelings or explain their behaviour. However, as parents, you will have an inherent understanding of your child’s temperament and can often sense when something is concerning regarding their development or mental well-being.

Below we explore common mental health disorders among children and provide guidance for parents on how to help their children.

Common mental health disorders among children

  • Depression and anxiety are two of the most prevalent mental health issues affecting children, and they can severely disrupt their ability to participate in play, school, or age-appropriate social situations. Children may exhibit different behaviours when struggling with these conditions compared to adults. Physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, and unexplained pains can sometimes indicate underlying anxiety. Additionally, if medical explanations have been ruled out, persistent low mood may be a sign of depression. Other signs to watch out for include sleep disturbances, nightmares, regression in developmental milestones, and the resurgence of behaviours typical of younger children, such as temper tantrums, separation anxiety, or increased reliance on comfort objects.
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders among children. Children with ADHD often struggle with attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity. While there is no cure for ADHD, various treatments can help alleviate symptoms and enhance a child’s understanding of their unique capabilities and achievements with their neurodiverse brain.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition that typically manifests in early childhood. The severity of ASD varies, but common symptoms include difficulties in communication, social interaction, making sense of social cues, maintaining friendships, and sensory integration challenges.
  • Eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are also prevalent among children. Eating disorders involve an unhealthy attitude towards food and may result in excessive or restricted eating as a way to cope with emotions. Eating disorders can lead to emotional and social dysfunction, as well as life-threatening physical complications. OCD is a mental health condition characterised by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. Symptoms of OCD may include fear of contamination, intrusive thoughts, perfectionism, and compulsions like counting, repeating movements, or hoarding.

How parents can support their child

The support parents provide to children with mental health disorders significantly impacts their growth and development. Open and honest communication is vital, creating a safe space for your child to express their concerns. It’s important to recognise that children express themselves differently, often through behaviours. As parents, we may experience emotions such as anger, guilt, fear, or embarrassment while navigating these challenges. However, remaining calm helps regulate your child’s nervous system and fosters a sense of safety.

While not every problem can be solved immediately, parents need to be patient and help their child process complex emotions. Reacting with anger, shouting, or punishment when a child is struggling with their mental health only worsens the situation and increases shame, making the child feel like they are failing. By having frequent and open conversations with your child, you create an environment where they feel comfortable expressing themselves and discussing any difficulties they may be facing. As a parent, it can be challenging to support a child dealing with mental health issues, and seeking out support systems is crucial to maintaining your own resilience.

Engaging in outdoor activities and promoting physical exercise has been shown to have positive effects on mental health. Walking, in particular, stimulates bilateral movements that regulate the nervous system and promote overall well-being. Other activities such as playing games together, drawing or painting, and mindfulness exercises provide avenues for your child to express their emotions.

When to seek professional help and available services

If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, it is important to seek professional help. Consult with a doctor who can guide you towards the most appropriate support services. Therapy can be highly beneficial for both children and their families, providing strategies to cope with mental health difficulties and move forward from psychological distress.

For conditions such as ADHD or ASD, a comprehensive neurodevelopmental assessment considers various factors contributing to the child’s difficulties. Mental health factors are taken into account, and assessments involve developmental interviews with parents and play-based assessments with the child. Treatments for ADHD vary based on the diagnosis, but a combination of medication and therapy is often the most effective approach. Medication is not a permanent cure for ADHD, but it can assist in managing the condition. Parents and guardians may also receive training and education on how best to support a child with ADHD or ASD.

Navigating children’s mental health is a complex journey, but as parents, we can equip ourselves with the knowledge and tools to better understand and support our children. Recognising the signs of mental health disorders, fostering open communication, and seeking professional help when needed are crucial steps. Understanding where to seek help and accessing appropriate support services are essential for promoting good mental health and well-being in children.

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