Coping with a child who has mental health problems is a really tough side of parenting that people often don’t feel prepared for, but the reality is that there are 1 million children in the UK suffering from some kind of mental health disorder and so there are lots of parents out there trying to navigate their way through mental health services and all the gaps in between. It can be scary and parents often feel helpless, but there are lots of things that you can be doing to support your child so that they, and you, can still experience the joys of childhood.
One of the biggest difficulties is that children (and teenagers) find it hard to understand and talk about feelings and so in order to know how your child is doing you need to pick up on more than just what they are saying. There may be changes in behaviour, energy levels, mood, interest in activities or even physical symptoms such as frequent stomach aches or headaches. A child may not realise that what they are experiencing is connected to their emotional and mental health and so as adults we need to try to help them make sense of all this. Educating yourself on symptoms can really help here.
Even if your child or teenager doesn’t want to talk to you about what is going on (which is really common!) it is key that you let them know that the option is there when they are ready. Find ways to foster an environment of openness at home and remind them that you are there to listen.
For some, professional help is an essential part of managing a mental health problem and even though this can be tough to accept as a parent, seeking this extra support is sometimes the best way to support your child. A conversation with the GP will be the first place to go and then from there you may be referred to CAMHS (the NHS mental health services for children and adolescents) but there are often local charities, local counselling services or in-school support who may also be able to help and so do as much research as you can and ask lots of questions along the way! Each time you go to an appointment take with you a list of symptoms, concerns, questions so that you make the most of that time with the professional.
Waiting lists for support can be long, but in the meantime there are healthy habits that you can weave into the rhythm of your family life to encourage a healthy recovery:
- Try to establish a good sleep pattern and getting lots of fresh air and exercise during the day.
- Learn some relaxation and breathing techniques that you can practise together in the evening before bed – this is especially helpful if your child is experiencing anxiety and worries.
- Model what it means to talk about how you are feeling and what you can do to make yourself feel better, so that it becomes the norm to talk about feelings and to practise self-care.
All of these changes will be good for your well-being as a whole family which is important to keep in mind. Taking time to consider your own emotional needs will mean that you are in the best position to be that consistent support. As part of this, see if you can connect with other parents going through a similar experience, perhaps in the form of a local support group. It can make a big difference to realise that you are not alone, especially as being in the caring role can become so isolating and all-consuming.
Similarly, educating yourself as much as possible will help to equip you and give you confidence when talking about what your child is experiencing whether that is with them, with professionals or just trying to explain your situation to friends and family. A great resource for information and advice can be found here.
The journey for each family is different, and it may feel long, but with all the right support for you and your child in place, recovery is possible and there can even be moments of laughter and joy along the way so look out for them and cherish them.