We can all agree that the coronavirus pandemic has brought widespread change for us during 2020. The way we’ve lived our lives has been overhauled and our day-to-day hasn’t looked the same since the beginning of March – and that’s just us grownups. But what about our children and young people’s lives?
With schools closing abruptly, being unable to see their friends and wider family for months and being exposed to confusing news snippets, our children have had a tough few months.
It can be tricky to navigate talking to children about mental health, but there are ways to help your child express themselves positively when it comes to their feelings. We spoke to our Compass Community Psychologist Louise Nichol for tips about how to talk to children about their feelings where their mental health is concerned.
The signs to look for
The signs of mental health issues in children and young people can differ depending on their age and their own disposition. The common signs of mental illness to look for in children are:
- Persistent sadness
- Trouble sleeping for prolonged lengths of time
- Loss of interest in things they used to find fun
- Loss of appetite, or eating excessively
- Increase in feeling worried, scared or panicked
- Excessive crying
- Self-harming or thoughts of hurting themselves
- Being withdrawn
- Regular temper tantrums in young children or violent or angry outbursts in older children and teens along with excessive irritability
- Extreme hyperactivity
Often children’s mental health issues are triggered by situational circumstances. Difficulties in school, problems at home or issues with self esteem can cause a child or teen to struggle.
COVID’s effect on children’s mental health
In the UK, studies have shown that children’s mental health has been, and is going to continue to be, impacted on significantly due to the disruption coronavirus has brought.
Mental health charity MIND reported that 22% of young people over the age of 13, who had no previous experience of mental health problems, now say that their mental health is poor. Encouraging children to talk about their feelings can be one way to alleviate anxieties that affect their mental health.
Children’s mental health charity Place2Be said that a lot of children in the UK are ‘fearful’ of going back to school. Some children and young people have had a lack of routine at home so this means returning to classes might be difficult for some.
Newsreader, journalist, and broadcaster Kate Silverton has shown concerns over her children’s mental wellbeing during the pandemic. “My children are young, but for all our children having our physical presence – watching a movie, or during a meal – is often what they crave the most, even though they might not always articulate it.”
Emotions are hard to navigate, especially for children, so it’s important for the adults to try to observe any signs of increased sadness, worry or withdrawal early on.
What Compass are doing
We don’t ask our children ‘how’s your mental health?’ in the same way that we don’t ask them ‘how’s your physical health?’ Checking in, asking how your child is feeling and asking if they have any worries about anything is a good way to start a conversation.
Our Compass Community Psychologist Louise Nichol works with children and young people with complex emotional needs. She provides therapy for children who have experienced trauma, so she has a lot of experience with talking about mental health and other subjects that can be difficult to approach. We asked her advice to find out the best way to have a conversation with children about their feelings.
‘During the pandemic, we’ve found that a lot of children and young people are coping better with some predictability in their day-to-day.’ Huge changes have occurred for them with little time to adjust.
Talking about how you’re feeling can be difficult for children to bring up naturally, so being able to drive the conversation as ‘the grown up’ will be incredibly helpful. Here’s some ways you can approach discussions about mental health with your children.
1. Try an activity
A shared activity, like playing Lego or drawing/colouring together with younger children can be a great way to start a conversation. Having another focus, separate to the difficult conversation being attempted, can help children to feel safer to listen and share. The activity/item could be something sensory to play with, like a fidget toy, slime or Blu-Tack.
Several short talks over a week or two can help a child share more if they aren’t as willing to open up quickly. A lot of the time, this can work better than one long conversation. Going on walks, visiting the park and even having food together can help a conversation flow.
2. Make it into a game
‘One of the activities we use in therapy is playing an adapted game of Snakes and Ladders.’ When we land on a ladder, we talk about something that brought us up in life, or something we find positive. For example, ‘I’m happy that I’ve got the chance to spend more time with you lately.’
When we land on a snake, we talk about something that brought us down, or something negative that happened. For instance, ‘I’ve been feeling sad that we haven’t been able to see our friends who don’t live close to us recently.’
Not everyone will own the board game, but you can easily print out a copy of the board online and use your own objects at home as counters. Or, if you’ve not got a printer, drawing out a board together will be a positive activity in itself!
3. The power of ‘wondering out loud’
A great tool to get the ball rolling is for parents and carers to say, “well, I wonder if you might be thinking/feeling…” Talking to your child about how you’ve worried about something or explaining how you might sometimes feel slightly anxious, ‘I might get sick, or you might get sick and that worries me a bit,’ helps children see that you are human too and demonstrates to them that it’s ok to not be ok.
Sharing your own, appropriate worries as an adult can help young people be more confident in talking about their own. ‘Reassuring young people that it’s normal to worry and it’s okay to sometimes fear possible scenarios shows children that it’s a natural thing for everyone.’
4. Go for a drive
A sit-down talk can be anxiety inducing for a lot of young people – and adults too! Going for a drive can be a way to strike up a conversation without it feeling too heavy or intense. ‘Lots of the children that I’ve worked with find it much easier to open up to adults when they’re on a drive. There isn’t any expectation to maintain eye contact and it can often feel like a safer, less exposed environment.’
There are lots of distractions for children in the car, too. ‘Sometimes you can have the most profound conversations with children when they’re a passenger, without them necessarily realising the depth the conversation has reached. They know that you’re listening, but the awareness that you’re also focused on the driving task can help them bring down their guard and allow vulnerability.
It can be difficult to identify the mental health issues that your child may be struggling with. If you’re worried about your child or a young person you know, you can get support from:
- MIND: UK charity with plenty of advice around young people’s mental health
- Samaritans: Information for schools, parents and carers
- YoungMinds: Guidance on supporting children with mental health issues
Speaking to your child’s GP if you have concerns for their longer-term mental health is a key way to get them support.
Many children and young people suffer from poor mental health, but with our support, guidance and expertise we can help them to thrive. If you think you could change a child’s life for the better, you can find out more about becoming a foster carer with us.