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Younger children’s mental health – When to worry and how to help

by Laura Palmer

Are you worried about how the last couple of years has affected your children’s mental health? Growing up is tricky enough, without a global pandemic in the mix. Alongside the usual childhood worries and stresses, children have had to adapt to constant changes at home and school. They lost hundreds of hours of education and playtime with friends. Not to mention all those missed birthday parties… It’s unsurprising that new research has shown the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by a whopping 50% in the last 3 years.

While life is slowly returning to normal, there’s still a lot for young minds to process. Especially smaller children who may not even be able to remember pre-pandemic life. Mental health issues are often seen as something that affects teens, rather than younger children, but this simply isn’t the case. Did you know that one in seven primary school-aged children had a diagnosable mental illness in 2020? This is the highest figure since records began.

Why are younger children’s mental health problems trickier to spot?

Normal childhood development means your child is constantly changing and growing. Some of the biggest leaps a child makes are during primary education. Just think about the difference between a Reception age child and a Year 6 one – are they even the same person?! These huge developmental leaps can trigger a whole kaleidoscope of emotions and reactions, which can be difficult to differentiate from children’s mental health problems.

The symptoms of mental health disorders can be different depending on a child’s age, which can make diagnosis difficult. You also need to remember younger children may not be able to explain how they feel, or why they are behaving a certain way. Especially after two lockdowns, which have had a negative impact on children’s language development.

What kind of mental health problems affect younger children?

Children’s mental health problems are often the same as those that teens and adults experience. Anxiety disorders are most common. They can often manifest as worries or anxiety that disrupt a child’s ability to play and socialise with others. If your child is suffering from anxiety, they could develop OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorders) where they use repetitive behaviours to try and soothe themselves.

ADHD, where your child may have difficulty with attention, impulsive behaviours, and hyperactivity affects 4% of children. While 1 in 100 children experience Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which can affect communication and interaction with others.

Many of the symptoms of these disorders overlap with typical reactions to the ups and downs in life that children face. It can be tricky sometimes to work out what’s ‘normal’ and what isn’t. After all, what’s ‘normal’ anyhow? Every child is different. What is important is your child gets the help and support they need if their mental health is suffering. So, what should you look out for as warning signs that all might not be well with your child?

What could mean your child needs some extra support?

– They get upset about being separated from you – it’s normal not to want to say goodbye at the school gate sometimes, but if it’s out of character, or happening more often than usual, take note.

– Problems with getting to sleep, sleeping alone, waking in the night, or constant bad dreams, can all be signs something’s going on.

– They avoid social situations. Turning down playdates, or trips to the park could be a reason to delve deeper.

– Not wanting to eat as much. Fussy eating is one thing, but if they’re saying ‘no way!’ to all their fave treats, you might want to look into it.

– They start behaving in ways they’ve outgrown, like sucking their thumb, or wetting the bed. These can all be signs of an issue with your children’s mental health.

– Physical pain that doesn’t have a clear medical cause. Complaining of tummy aches, nausea and headaches can all be anxiety manifesting itself. Especially if your child says they feel sick, and then you find them raiding the chocolate cupboard 5 minutes later.

What to do next and how to get help if you’re worried:

If you think something’s going on and there’s a problem with your children’s mental health, it can be hard to know how to talk to them about it. A good way to try and gauge their feelings is to watch them play.

Stressed and upset children often play fighting games with their toys. If you’re seeing lots of this, engage with them and say something like, “There’s a lot of fights going on” or “This is a bit of a scary game”. Maybe your child is just all about ‘war and guns’ right now, but if it’s something deeper, this can help them open up and talk about what’s bothering them.

Once you start talking, gently ask what’s wrong. If they don’t want to chat, just let the subject go. Pick it up again and repeat the process until they’re ready to talk. If you hit a brick wall, see if they’ll confide in another trusted adult. You could ask grandparents, a family friend, or a teacher to try the same technique. It’s also a good idea to ask them if they’ve noticed changes in your child’s behaviour too.

If you think your children’s mental health needs further support, your next port of call is your GP. Get in touch and describe the behaviours that concern you. They can then refer your child to a specialist who can support them and provide appropriate therapies to help.

Tips for keeping on top of children’s mental health:

Explore stress management techniques to help you respond calmly to your child. It’s a lot when children are unhappy and struggling with their mental health. To be able to support them properly, you need to develop strategies to keep cool when emotions are running high.

Try and schedule a bit of bonding time each week. Little things like reading a story together before bed, teaming up to make their favourite cupcakes, or an impromptu kick about in the back garden can all help you connect with your child. By seeking ways to relax and have fun together, you’ll gain your child’s trust and they’ll feel comfortable opening up to you.

Focus on the good stuff. If your children’s mental health isn’t great right now, they’re likely to feel low and down on themselves. Try and boost their self-esteem by praising your child’s strengths and abilities.

Make sure they get enough sleep. Primary school children generally need 10 to 11 hours sleep a night. If they get less, it can affect their mental health and exacerbate existing problems. Get them to bed early, because kids who fall asleep before 9 pm wake up less and snooze more deeply. To encourage a restful night take screens away 2 hours before bed and try a warm bath, followed by a good story.

Milky drinks can help because milk contains tryptophan, which helps the body create happy hormone serotonin and melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep cycles. You should also check out our genius Kids Sleep patches, which can be used daily to help your child sleep soundly. The longer they sleep, the more rest and self-care time for you. Just what the Dr ordered if things are fraught at home.

Have an older child? Our blog on teen mental health is here.