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The importance of listening then talking

“A child seldom needs a good talking to as much as a good listening to,” wrote American author, Robert Brault. It’s a sentiment that we passionately agree with and something that’s critically important when it comes to a child’s wellbeing. Yet as anyone who lives or works with children and young people knows, it’s not always easy to achieve. Helping a young person to open up and talk can be difficult – especially if you have concerns about their mental health and wellbeing.

The last couple of years have been unsettling and challenging for everyone but young people have been particularly hit hard. We’re at the start of a new year now but the after effects of the festive period linger on and not always in a positive way. Christmas may be the season of goodwill but it’s also, sadly, the time when the highest rates of domestic violence, divorce and loneliness occur. Throw Covid into that mix, an uncertain future, with possible isolation and social distancing, and it is not surprising that some children and young people will struggle with their mental health.

According to this 2021 NHS report, ‘around 1 in 6 children (aged 5-16 years) were identified as having a probably mental disorder, increasing from 1 in 9 in 2017. The increase was evident in both boys and girls.”

Childhood and adolescence is always full of emotional ups and downs, no matter who the individual is or what their circumstances are. So how can you recognise when there is a real problem brewing? What are the red flags?

Look out for:

Children:

  • Significant changes in behaviour
  • A significant drop in academic performance
  • Not eating properly
  • Time off school with various physical health complaints or reluctance to go to school
  • A change in mood which is fairly consistent for 2 weeks or more
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Separation anxiety
  • Increased anxiety in general

Adolescents:

In addition to the list above:

  • Signs of self-harm or neglecting themselves
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Staying at home, not going out and meeting friends (social withdrawal or isolation)
  • Risk-taking behaviour (such as substance abuse or sexual risk taking)

Remember that you know your son or daughter. You can sense when something is wrong. Now is the time to talk to them to try and find out what is happening.

Time to talk

So where to start? A good way to get a conversation started is to do some kind of activity together. Depending on the age of the child, you could play a ball game, cook or bake together, go for a walk, do a jigsaw for example.  For teenagers, go for a coffee, go for a jog or a drive, share music… The idea is to create a relaxed atmosphere – for both of you – that takes the focus away from ‘having a talk’. This gives you opportunities to talk about feelings and provide comfort and support.

The charity, Young Minds, has some suggestions for starting such a conversation:

  • How are you feeling?
  • What was the best and worst bit of your day?
  • What did you do today that you are most proud of?
  • How can I support you through [issue]?
  • Do you want to talk about what’s going on?
  • Is there anything you need from me? Space, time to talk or do something fun?
  • What was the biggest problem you had today? What helped?

You may not be successful the first time but give them comfort and reassurance that they can talk to you anytime.

Getting help

You’ve talked and you believe that your child needs professional support. What help is out there for families who have concerns over their child’s mental wellbeing? In the first instance, before speaking to a professional, write down what your concerns are and the times when you noticed behaviour that worried you.

A good place to start is to talk to your GP. They can rule out any possible physical issues that might have caused a change in behaviour. If the doctor rules out physical cause, then they can refer you onto a specialist, such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Other local support services can be found by going online. The charity, Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, has a good search option on their website as does Youth Access. The NHS website has some useful links to services that provide support and advice for families concerned about a child or young person’s mental health.

Private practitioners are also an option. It may be that a particular treatment or therapy isn’t available through the NHS. There are shorter waiting times in private practice; you can choose where to get treatment and who provides that treatment. In short, you get greater flexibility and a personalised bespoke service.

Early intervention can have a positive impact on young people’s wellbeing and mental health. Taking early action also helps prevent mental health problems worsening and mental disorders from developing.

  • One-third of mental health problems in adulthood are directly connected to an adverse childhood experience (ACE)
  • Adults who experienced four or more adversities in their childhood are four times more likely to have low levels of mental wellbeing and life satisfaction

This is a tough time for everyone but there is support, advice and guidance out there. You don’t have to do this on your own. At JM Mental Health we work with families who

  • Recognise the value of collaboration
  • Commit to the process
  • Are willing to work together to support their family member
  • Want to be part of the process
  • Aren’t looking for a quick fix

If you are concerned about your child and would like to talk to us about taking the next steps together, contact us for an initial free chat.

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