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How to help your primary age child with their mental health

Posted 1st February 2021

#childrensmentalhealthweek

We are nearly a year into the COVID pandemic.  We all know some of the biggest changes for families – schools being closed to most, children (& parents) unable to socialises as normal with friends, the loss of many previously enjoyed (& much needed) activities and structures.  Children are missing out on many things such as participating in sports teams, clubs and other hobbies and birthday outings / parties.  The world around them looks and feels different and the message they may be getting is that it’s not safe to do that most human of all things – be around others.

Many of the certainties of life will have gone for children.  Things that seemed absolutely solid – particularly that school continues day after day with the same children, that relatives visit and can be visited, that parents go about their usual daily routines – are no longer solid.  Maybe the whole family is at home together all day every day, maybe parents are juggling work and home schooling, maybe grandparents haven’t visited for nearly a year.

For children these disruptions are likely to feel enormous – because they are enormous.  And if these things can change, what might be next?  Is the world maybe not as safe as they had previously believed?  Are parents really able to keep things safe?  Children aren’t able to weigh up relative risks in the same way that hopefully most adults can and their fears may not be clearly defined, it may be more of a feeling in the stomach, the surfacing of an apparently irrational worry or a change in behaviour.  Most children of around primary age and for some well into secondary school are less likely to be talking about the impact of the pandemic on them and more likely to be showing you. 

How children might show you that something is wrong

At The Bridge many of the parents we work with are telling us that their children are behaving during the COVID pandemic in ways that are making family life even more difficult.  They may be challenging their parents’ authority more than previously, refusing to do everyday tasks (like get ready for bed, sit at the table) or getting into more arguments with their siblings. 

For other children, rather than their behaviour becoming more directly challenging, they are communicating their feelings by withdrawing, developing obsessional behaviours or phobias, becoming picky about food or becoming anxious about separating from you.  Of course there may be many reasons for this, but one reason to consider at the moment is that your child is affected by the changes in their life during the pandemic and they are doing what they can to try to keep some control.  Maybe by only eating certain foods they have a sense that they have some power over things?  Or by developing a phobia about (say) spiders (but it could be anything), then at least they think they know where the danger is and what they need to avoid. 

How you can help

So how do help your child when they are not directly asking for help but they are giving you clues that things are not feeling ok?   The first thing that’s likely to help is processing your own feelings.  You can’t help your child if you are feeling too wound up / distressed / anxious to think clearly yourself.  Pay attention to the feelings that your child’s behaviour stirs up in you as well.  Do they leave you feeling like you’re not a good enough parent and you have no ideas about how to help?  Then there’s a good chance that your child is also feeling hopeless and not good enough, and they have found a way to make you feel pretty much the same way.  Do you find yourself feeling angry, frustrated or irritated?  It’s quite likely your child has been feeling the same way.

You can of course ask your child about how the world is feeling at the moment, but the chances are quite high that they won’t be able to put this into words . Children are still learning about how you process very difficult feelings, so giving them a model is likely to help them get better at this over time.  For example: you are home-schooling your child, they get frustrated with your teaching and scream : “I hate you, you’re stupid and you never listen”.  Perhaps you feel defeated, not good enough, rejected and it could be tempting to go straight for “Don’t you talk to me like that” (etc.).  Take a moment, have a think about whether or not there might be a clue to your child’s feelings, and then have a go at putting something into words for your child, such as: “I think what you’re trying to say is ‘This maths feels so hard and I feel like I’m not good enough when I can’t do it…. I want my teacher back!”.  Of course your child also needs to learn something about helpful and unhelpful ways of expressing their feelings, but you are likely to get a lot further with this if they also know that their feelings have been understood. 

What if your child’s behaviours are more anxious or obsessional than challenging or disruptive?  If your child seems to be doing something to control the world in whatever way (limit their food, obsessional about touching or not touching certain things, have to do things in a certain order) then there’s a good chance – especially if this is new behaviour – that they are feeling like things in their world are out of control and that they need to do something to fix this.  Talking about what is going on in the world & communicating that they are safe is a good start, they need to know that you as the parent are in control of the important things (things that happen in the family) and there are grown ups out there in the wider world who are in control of some of the other things like getting schools back safely again or making sure everyone stays safe.  Make sure your child has a chance to talk about the things in the world that are scaring them, and take their worries seriously.  Talk about their behaviour and help them make sense of it, e.g. “I’ve noticed that you have to [do x] every time before we leave the house…  what would it feel like if you didn’t do this – does that feel quite scary?”  Above all – open up a conversation – what is feeling scary at the moment?  What is feeling out of control?  Your child may not know & you will probably need to float some ideas….

Just as with the more challenging behaviour, your own feelings can often be a good clue about how your child is feeling.  To take an example: your child has taken to separating out all of the food on their plate by colour, different colours should not touch and they eat their food painfully slowly.  After weeks of this you feel upset, powerless to change it, worried about your child not eating enough and maybe rejected as you’ve tried to cook things you know your child likes.  Once you’ve had a chance to both think about what’s going on and notice your own feelings, you might be able to say something like: “Looks like you really need to be in control of your food at the moment…. This is making me think that maybe other things are NOT feeling in your control…. And I’m guessing this is making you upset and quite scared…?” 

Even if you’re not completely right you are showing your child that you know there are reasons why they do the things they do, and these can be thought about and understood.  You know the worry isn’t really about the food, and you can help the child work out with you where the worry actually belongs.  Your child’s impulse to try to control the world when it’s feeling scary is understandable, and they have a limited range of things that they can be in charge of, so you are likely to see children try to take control of the things that are easiest – what they eat, when or where they sleep, how long they spend in the bath (etc.).  It’s not so much about the specific behaviour as about what this tells you about how your child is feeling.

However your child is showing their anxiety, anger, frustration or upset there are also some common sense things you can do to help at the moment:

  • Above all, create spaces in the day when you can listen to your child and where they feel safe to talk about anything and everything.  It’s usually best not to leave this until bedtime.
  • Consider making sure your child can’t hear the news & can’t overhear you talking about the news if at the moment this feels too much for them
  • Ask them about the things they are hearing from their peers and help them to make sense of what they are hearing – there can be lots of frightening misinformation circulating
  • Make sure your child knows that you feel secure & you are not frightened yourself: your child will take their cue quite a lot from your own sense of confidence
  • Try to do as many “normal” things as you can, keep up the usual rules, bedtime routines etc.
  • Consider having a worry book or box by your child’s bed so that they can write down or draw the things that are worrying them at bed time & put it safely into the box and then close the box (or even lock it) – this can help children to feel that the worry can be safely left until morning, and then when morning comes you can see if they want to have a look at it again
  • For some children some guided meditations aimed at helping them let go of worries at night time can help them to feel calm enough to get a good night’s sleep – this in turn can help them with how they feel the next day

If you need more help & support with your child’s mental health, at The Bridge we offer parent consultations in our fee-paying service, where you can talk through your concerns about your child’s behaviour and mental health with a specialist.  Contact info@bridgefoundation.org.uk or tel 0117 9424510. And see this website for further information.