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Protecting your child's mental health

Small girl hiding behind a table
Credit: iStock.com/Juanmonino

Don’t wait to seek help if you suspect your child has mental health problems.

Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital has found the majority of parents they surveyed in a national child health poll couldn’t be sure their child had a mental health issue and wouldn’t know what to do if they did.

Director of the poll, paediatrician Dr Anthea Rhodes says that less than half of parents (44%) reported being confident they would know where to go for help if their child was experiencing social, emotional or behavioural difficulties.

Dr Rhodes says it is particularly concerning to see the poll revealed a third of parents believe a child’s mental health problems might be best left alone to work themselves out over time.

“Even if parents are unsure, there is no harm in having a conversation with their GP or school counsellor about any emotional, social or behavioural difficulties they think their child may be experiencing,” Dr Rhodes adds.

The poll revealed that parents who reported connecting with their kids most days of the week were more confident they would recognise a mental health problem in their child if it was present. 

Despite regularly focusing on and connecting with their kids, one in three parents still said it was hard to find the time to do so and some parents of young children reported being unsure of what to talk about or how to connect with their child.

“Life is busy and full of distractions, but parents can make a difference to the mental health and wellbeing of their kids by finding ways to focus on and connect with them as part of everyday life. It can be as simple as taking the time to read them a book, eating a meal together or having a chat on the way to school,” Dr Rhodes said.

The poll revealed that only a third (35%) of Australian parents are confident they could recognise the signs of a mental health problem in their child, with a further third of parents believing a child’s mental health problems might be best left alone to work themselves out over time.

Children can develop many of the same mental health difficulties as adults, but sometimes they can manifest in different ways making them harder to recognise. 

Ignoring signs that may indicate a child is in need of help can result in the problem becoming more entrenched and much harder to treat.

If we help children name their emotions, help them with strategies of self-regulation and role model empathy and kindness, they will grow up knowing it is okay to reach out for help when struggling with mental health issues.
Alma-Jane O’Donnell

Secure, nurturing relationships

Goodstart Early Learning Senior Child & Family Practitioner Alma-Jane O’Donnell says the foundations of healthy infant mental health development begin in pregnancy running through the first five years.

She says babies need secure, nurturing relationships with carers for the neurological pathways responsible for social and emotional wellbeing to develop to their full potential. 

Sometimes life's significant adversities can impact on the healthy development of an infant’s mental health such as toxic levels of stress during pregnancy, war, domestic violence, child abuse and loss of a parent. 

“Possible signs of risk to an infant’s mental health development can be, withdrawal of relational connection with carers and peers, gaze avoidance, high levels of anxiety, non-medical failure to thrive, dramatic escalation in aggressive behaviours or self-harm,” says Alma-Jane.

“With early intervention young children have the best outcome for full recovery, as their brain is still forming and able to be re-shaped. New neural connections can be developed very quickly by providing secure, nurturing, safe relationships and environments.”

The poll found 15 per cent of all parents felt their child was too young to talk to and connect with, and 13 per cent said they were not sure what to talk about or how to connect with their child.

Connecting through play

Alma-Jane says the best way to connect to young children is through play. 

She says allowing at least 10 to 20 minutes per day of uninterrupted, child-led play time will help parents connect with their children and that naming emotions and talking freely about all types of emotions will also help children and parents. 

“If we help children name their emotions, help them with strategies of self-regulation and role model empathy and kindness, they will grow up knowing it is okay to reach out for help when struggling with mental health issues,” she says.

“Do not dismiss feelings or try to distract your child from emotions. For example you can recognise emotions, ‘Oh I see you’re feeling very sad, it is okay to feel sad, I am here with you.’”

“It is also good to help children identify their body response to emotions. An example might be, ‘Oh you seem very upset, is your heart beating fast now?’, and then give strategies to self-regulate, such as, ‘When your heart starts to beat fast take four deep breaths.’ Children as young as two can learn these strategies.”

Alma-Jane suggests connecting with your local child health service, play therapy services or getting a referral from your GP for a paediatric assessment. 

She says parenting training such as Circle of Security  is highly recommended, especially if your child is struggling with emotions.

Signs of a possible mental health problem in a younger child include:

Signs of a social, emotional or behavioural problem in a child or teenager can be hard to spot. Patterns of emotion or behaviour that are particularly intense, go on for more than a few weeks and/or affect a child’s ability to cope with everyday life at home, school or kinder may be a sign of a mental health problem.

  • Sadness a lot of the time
  • Ongoing worries or fears
  • Obsessions or compulsive habits that interfere with everyday life
  • Ongoing problems getting along with other children or fitting in at school, kinder or child care
  • Aggressive or consistently disobedient behaviour, such as frequent yelling, kicking, hitting, biting or damaging things around them
  • Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or tummy aches
  • Sleep problems, including nightmares.

 

Further links

Lifeline Australia – phone 131 114 (local call; 24 hour advice line)

Kids Helpline – phone 1800 55 1800 (free call; free 24 hour advice line)

National Home Doctor Service – phone 13 SICK or 13 74 25 (local call)

Orygen Youth Health – phone 1800 888 320 (free call)

Parentline Victoria – phone 13 22 89 (local call; free advice 8:00am to midnight 7 days a week)

Suicide Call Back Service – phone 1300 659 467 (local call; free 24 hour advice line)

Youth beyondblue – phone 1300 224 636 (Iocal call; free 24 hour advice line)

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