Mental health awareness in children is so important, for the individual child, for their family and for the community. So why is it that children are all too often expected to fit into a box where stress and pressure is not fully acknowledged. The view is that without responsibility for bills, rising costs, work and property maintenance, life must be simple.
This week is mental health awareness week in the UK. There are several activities happening around the country, and charities are getting involved too. I have written previously about self-care in adults and managing your own mental health. It’s taken me longer to feel moved to talk about mental health awareness in children though. Why? Surely that is something better left to the experts, those with years and years of training who are qualified in it. What happens then, when the experts seem less clued up than parents.
Mention SEND anywhere in the UK and you will quickly realise that there is a crisis. Not looming, but happening. Children are not being supported, families are being questioned and funding is simply not available.
Now introduce a second idea. Children are normally living without direct responsibilities for bills, jobs and maintenance. Their lives though, are overwhelmed instead with pressure through our education system and awareness of stress that impacts the people around them. A month in the life of a child is a bigger percentage of their life lived so far than a month in the life of an adult. Throw a bucket load of pressure onto that timeframe and it feels like the equivalent of sustained pressure for a year of an adult’s life (give or take, subject to age*). All of a sudden a month of SATs preparation or GCSE or A-Level pressure seems immense. Combine it with any other stress, anxiety or poorly supported mental health condition and is it surprising that our children are struggling?
What can we do?
The key here is awareness. Not all children at all times will have poor mental health, but having an understanding of the basics is important. I have written here about signs of stress in children.
As mentioned above, I have written before about self-care and a number of my suggestions for adults work well for children too. I have listed my top 5 go to ideas below. That said, as a parent or guardian you will know your child best. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what they need.
The great outdoors provides a variety of options to suit all children and their families. From the countryside to the seaside, a large dose of fresh air can do wonders for mental health. Studies suggest that being outside lowers the cortisol and adrenaline in your system, which are both associated with stress and anxiety. This is no different for children. Even spending time in your garden planting or playing can help.
Animals are fantastic, providing real affection and helping humans when they are consumed with feelings of being overwhelmed. It was during the 1960s that research around animal therapy first started. This has continued and there is much more awareness now about the positive impact of therapy pets.
That said, pets are a big responsibility. There is a danger that this may add to the mental load of a child, but a family pet could make a real difference. If you are not in a position to offer a good home to an animal, look instead for local opportunities to walk a dog, visit an animal shelter or go to a children’s farm.
Not all children will relish the idea of a plate of steamed vegetables lightly covered with a hint of spice. Eating well can increase energy levels though, and make us all feel more mentally alert. I try to make food look as appetising as possible, offering fruit salads in place of one piece of fruit, or hiding veg that sparks sensory issues in a tomato style sauce. It’s good to be aware of portion sizes as well. There is a lot of conversation around children eating too much, but when they are anxious their appetite dips and it can result in them eating too little. Small meals offered on a more regular basis may help to overcome this.
Plenty of exercise
Exercise is accessible for everyone in different forms, and can really help children to feel good about themselves. If focused sports sessions are not their thing, consider a gentle walk or family swim. If getting your child out of the house is tricky, take a look online. Cosmic Kids yoga is fantastic, and all of Joe Wicks’s lockdown PE lessons are still available on YouTube too.
A good night’s sleep
This doesn’t come easily to everyone and can be more difficult to achieve if your child is feeling upset. In our house we make use of low lighting, bed tents, weighted blankets and a set bedtime routine. A decent sleep allows the brain time to process emotional information which is vital to mental wellbeing.
Mental health awareness in children is crucial to understanding their world and supporting them as they grow. Rather than being an extra pressure for us as parents and carers, I hope you will take comfort from the suggestions above which are really easy to implement no matter what your family situation or set up is.
*yes I did work it out mathematically!