Concerned about your child’s mental health? Here are some practical tips from the experts

Concerned about your child’s mental health? Here are some practical tips from the experts


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The mental health burden of the state’s sixth lockdown has taken a toll on many Victorians.

Victoria’s Chief Psychiatrist Neil Coventry urged adults on Thursday to reach out to young people amid concerns of an increase in mental health issues.

The Age asked the Royal Children’s Hospital director of mental health, Ric Haslam, and coordinator of clinical psychology, Alice Morgan, for some tips to parents and carers.

There has been rising concern about the mental health impact of the latest lockdown on young children. Credit:Tanya Macheda

Dr Ric Haslam

What should parents and carers look out for?

Parents know their children best of all, so they are pretty good at looking for changes in their child’s behaviour that are persisting for more than a few days, and in particular that affect their functioning and health. Parents don’t always find it easy to recognise children’s thoughts and feelings (such as depressed mood and anxiety) so it is important to ask regularly and then listen carefully to their answers.

Some warning signs are changes to eating (restriction or overeating), sleeping (not in a good frame of mind on waking, new trouble with falling asleep), activity (withdrawing from previously enjoyable activities), tearfulness and persisting worries that lead to avoiding important activities like school. In older children you might watch out for them avoiding contact with friends and a marked loss of motivation and withdrawal.

What immediate steps can carers take to alleviate the mental health burden on children?

Parents can look at what’s expected of their kids across the week and where these demands can be scaled back. This applies to schoolwork demands, after-school activities and other commitments. Anxious children tend to underestimate their coping skills and overestimate what is expected of them. So, encouragement, an expectation of success and helping them tackle a smaller part of a challenge, or starting with the easiest part is great. Parents should try to model and demonstrate their own coping strategies (deep breaths, tackling step-by-step, asking for a hand etc).

How can carers ease the burden of remote learning on children who may not be coping?

Remote learning means lots of seated screen time and mostly reduced academic demands but also means kids need to be more able to actively engage with that learning. Having a quiet place to try to participate and a smaller expectation for time spent is a good start. Having the camera on for conferences is important for engagement. Regular breaks through the day for sunshine and physical activity are helpful for mood and physical health. Scheduling non-school screen time is a good idea. Trying to help your kids stay in touch with peers is so important. Find ways with your kids that they can help others in the community, like sending little care packages or messages to family and friends.

What should carers say to their children who are experiencing anxieties and worries?

For younger children, carers can show interest and acceptance by telling their child what they have noticed and then asking how they are feeling. Parents can show how they themselves are experiencing uncertainty or anxiety and coping with it. It is useful to help kids to keep their concerns in perspective. I encourage parents to check out the website for resources and links, as well as Raising Children Network. I can also recommend the Victorian Government’s new Head to Help hubs (1800 595 212).

How can the community look out for vulnerable children?

Looking out for vulnerable children is definitely something for the whole community. Parents can try to reach out to carers of children who may be struggling by asking how they are going and how their child is going with remote learning and all the other changes. Schools and early learning environments are often tuned into children who have additional burdens and there are some excellent family support agencies that can offer supports.

Dr Alice Morgan

What should parents and carers look out for?

It is normal to expect some change in mood and behaviour of your child at this time. The first signs that your child is struggling – particularly for younger children – may be physical signs. They might describe tummy aches or headaches, or you may notice a change in their sleeping or eating patterns. Older children may withdraw into their bedrooms more and talk less than usual, or alternatively, your child might become more irritable than usual or have a short fuse, which may also be a sign of anxiety or difficulty coping. Other signs may include your child describing thoughts that they can’t get out of their head, a tendency to catastrophise (experience situations as worse than they are) or possibly self-harm. All of us will probably go through a few days where we are not ourselves, but parents should be concerned if this persists for more than a couple of weeks.

What immediate steps can carers take to alleviate the mental health burden on children?

Parents can try to remember the 3 Rs: Reassurance, Routines and Regulation. Validate your child’s emotions and reassure them that people are working hard to keep them safe. Focus on the helpers in the community (the scientists, doctors, nurses, people wearing masks) and how everyone can do something to help. Maintain routines as much as possible. Give the children a set routine around home schooling, play and wind down. Make sure these routines differ at weekends and school holidays so that it feels like there is variety. Routines give children a sense of safety and predictability and help to reduce stress. Lastly, regulate. Help them to engage in activities to manage their big emotions. This might be things like exercise, taking deep breaths, meditation, yoga or using sensory toys that help them to feel calm.

Open up conversations with your child often. Continue to start these conversations, even if they don’t take up your offer.

Validate your young person’s emotions. Tell them that it is OK to feel like this and perhaps share your own stories. Let them know that you can cope with their strong emotions, even if what you hear is difficult.

Role model your own ways of coping with emotions and plan together about what you can do to help feel better. This might be taking a walk together, playing soccer outside or playing with the dog.

Be prepared to answer questions in an honest way about the pandemic and about how you cope when it gets you down.

Remember to play. All of us adults need some fun right now and the world isn’t giving this to us. Make sure you take time to be silly with your children, to play games and to enjoy being together.

How can carers ease the burden of remote learning on children who may be suffering?

Take the pressure off. Tell your child that you don’t expect them to get the same marks that they were getting at school.

Make sure that the school day also has times for rest breaks, social breaks and time to get outside. This will make them feel less like they are stuck on Zoom all day and reduce their sense of fatigue.

Use your community to help. Can other families members call in to help with homework and give some variety to your children? Can they learn through educational games instead?

For younger children, think about linking remote learning to rewards or fun activities that they enjoy so they have something to look forward to at the end of the day.

What should carers say to their children who are experiencing anxieties and worries?

We know from research on disasters and pandemics that once children feel safe again, most children are OK. They don’t go on to develop symptoms of trauma or long-term problems with depression and anxiety. But in the moment, it can be hard to hold these big feelings for them.

Victorians have endured more than 230 days in lockdown. Credit:Paul Jeffers

Most importantly, validate your child’s feelings by telling them that it is OK to feel like this. Tell them that you sometimes feel this way too (if you have) and give them some ideas about what helps you to feel better. Don’t try to fix their problems immediately, but let them know that you are always there to talk to.

Help your child to notice how they feel anxiety and teach them strategies to help them to manage it. This might be simple techniques like challenging their worries or taking some slow mindful breaths. The BRAVE program can be a great online program to help with anxiety.

How can the community look out for vulnerable children?

The phrase ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ exists for a reason. While there are more official channels for children to get help, good mental wellbeing for our children is all of our responsibility. Think about the ways that you can build a community and support families that might be struggling.

This may be through acts of kindness like dropping off small care packages or by creating treasure hunts in parks for children to participate in. But it might also be about reaching out to the neighbour you haven’t seen in a while and asking if they are OK. Supporting parents will support our vulnerable children.

Most importantly a child needs a place to be heard. Vulnerable children may be worried that they will get sick or that their carers might die but they may not have a safe place to air these worries at home. Teachers, carers and community members can all look out for these children by simply having time for them, and asking openly about their worries.

The Royal Children’s Hospital has collated a range of resources to support children’s mental health through the pandemic. If you or anyone you know needs help call Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

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