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1 in 8 children have mental health disorders – here’s how to talk to kids about emotional wellbeing

A major NHS report has found that one in eight young people in England, aged between five and 19, suffer with a mental health disorder.

The survey, which looked at data from over 9,000 children living in England and registered with a GP, found an increase in conditions like anxiety, depression and OCD in children over the past decade.

A worrying one in 18 children aged two to four years now has at least one mental health condition, while 17-19-year-old girls have been identified as a ‘high risk’ group, with one in four suffering with disorder and 46.8% of children in this age category attempting self harm or suicide.

Portrait of a sad teenage girl looking thoughtful about troubles

A quarter of 11-16-year-olds with a mental health issue has self-harmed or attempted suicide, according to the report

The emotional wellbeing of children is just as important as their physical health, and while having a conversation with your child about mental issues can be challenging, it can be the important first step in helping them to find the support they need.

Sarah Kendrick, head of service from children’s mental health charity Place2Be, reveals the dos and don’ts for talking to a young people you think may be struggling to cope…

Do… use age-appropriate language

Mother Talking With Unhappy Teenage Daughter On Sofa

Choose your words carefully

It’s never too early or too late to start thinking about your child’s mental health – but do make sure you choose your language carefully, says Kendrick.

“From a young age, children can start to understand difficult feelings and worries. Referring to characters in story books or on TV can be a helpful way to get them thinking about different emotions and how to cope with them.”

Don’t… overwhelm them

“It’s important to be honest with your children and answer their questions, but be careful not to bombard them,” warns Kendrick.

She suggests answering simply and in a way that addresses their personal anxieties. Check what it is they want to know, so you’re focusing on what they’re asking you.

Try to be patient

Do… wait for the right moment

If you become aware of a problem, it can be tempting to rush in and insist on a chat straight away – but sometimes, waiting until things calm down can be the best approach.

“Finding a way not to put pressure on them, such as in the car or over a quiet activity, can help the conversation feel like less of an interrogation,” says Kendrick, “which is especially helpful for teenagers.”

Don’t… pretend to have all the answers

“Rather than jumping straight to suggesting solutions, try to think with your child about what might be helpful, and come up with the answers together,” Kendrick advises. “This will help empower your child and give them a sense of having some control over their situation.”

sad child on a bench

Acknowledge that their feelings are valid

Do… put your phone away

It’s really challenging when we all lead such busy lives, but getting rid of distractions will let your child know that you have time for them. “Committing to this regularly will remind your child that they can come to you if they’re struggling with something.”

Don’t… tell them to ‘just get over it’

“If your child tells you something is bothering them, take it seriously,” Kendrick stresses. “What can seem small to us as adults can feel enormous for a child. What’s more, it will keep the future lines of communication open when other challenges come up.”

Young sad boy at school

‘Just get over it’ is one of the worst things you can say

Do… model good behaviour

“As parents, we are constant role models,” says Kendrick. “It’s important to think about your own behaviour and how you deal with emotions, such as anger and frustration, in front of your children – as this will influence how they behave and cope themselves.

“Don’t forget that it’s natural for everyone to get upset or angry sometimes, and parenting can be a very stressful experience.”

Don’t… blame yourself

“Anyone can be affected by poor mental health, including children and young people. We wouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed if our child had asthma – the same goes for mental health issues.”

Don't shift the blame onto yourself

Don’t shift the blame onto yourself

Do… ask for help

If you talk to your child and you’re still concerned, Kendrick says the best thing you can do is talk to someone – either someone at your child’s school, or your GP can recommend local organisations who can offer support.

Don’t… give up

If at first you don’t succeed, says Kendrick, don’t give up.

“It may feel difficult, particularly if your young person doesn’t seem to want to open up, but they will appreciate the effort and in the long run, will remember that they can come to you to talk when the time is right for them.”

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