mental health in school-age children

Mental health awareness in schools

Stephen Spriggs
May 13th 2020

Mental health issues affect one in eight 5 to 19-year-olds, and school-related worries, such as homework, exam stress and parental or teacher pressure contribute to concerns around mental health in school-age children. Depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, a tendency to self-harm, eating disorders or suicidal thoughts can all result from poor mental health. So how do you recognise that your child is unwell, and if so, how do you help them?

It’s perfectly natural for children and young people to feel worried or anxious from time to time. Starting school, moving to a new school, finding new friendship groups, coping with homework, sitting exams and preparing to leave education for university or work are milestones that are bound to cause some concerns. But according to the NHS, mental health issues in 5-15-year-olds is on the rise. As a parent, it’s being able to recognise what is not ‘normal,’ and if your child is struggling to cope. Failing to intervene in good time could have long-lasting and potentially devastating effects.  

Firstly, realise that the signs might not be obvious. Your child could seem happy but be hiding their sadness, depression or anxiety from you. They could be self-harming in secret or pretending that they’ve just eaten when in fact they’re not eating at all. The Mental Health Foundation has published a booklet called The Anxious Child, which can be found online at www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/anxious_child.pdf. 
It lists some signs of anxiety that you may not spot and tips for each stage of life. 

Pre-school children
Young children can suffer from phobias and separation, especially as they embark on the routine of school. Prepare them by making sure they see a wide range of people and spend at least a day away from home so they can get used to being away from you. Keep your anxieties in check. If you’re bawling your eyes out when you drop them off at nursery or pre-school, they’re going to be upset too.

School-age children
Signs to look out for when it comes to mental health in school-age children include being extremely shy and clingy, having difficulties mixing with other children, having trouble sleeping, repeated nightmares, repeated headaches or stomach aches or constantly seeking reassurance. Low marks in the classroom or a fear of failure contribute to feelings of rejection and poor self-worth. The best antidote is encouragement to fulfil their potential, but also to accept them when they fail. If your child is at boarding school, check what pastoral care is available as well as help for children who struggle to settle. Ensure that you are kept informed of any changes in your child’s behaviour. 

Teenagers
Teenage years can be demanding. Not only is it a time of rapid physical development and emotional change, but the pressure of school work and exams can be overwhelming. Set ground rules that are reasonable but become less restrictive as your child gets older. If you are concerned about them, be upfront and if they do open up, really listen to them. Young people will be more likely to confide in you if they think you’ll respond to their worries and not just criticise them. Be supportive if they’d rather speak to a non-family member, and if they do have a problem, let them choose where they go for help, whether it’s a school counsellor, a GP or a website. They might be reluctant to disclose the source of their concern if they think you’re going to march to school and embarrass them.

Home worries can also have a major impact on mental health in school-age children. Parents divorcing or arguing at home, financial concerns or an ill grandparent can have a damaging effect. There could also be other health issues, such as undiagnosed dyslexia or ADHD, or sight or hearing loss that means they’re struggling without the right support. Ensuring they’re eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep and enjoying regular leisure time. In the busy exam season especially, this can prevent them from feeling overly stressed and anxious.

If you’re concerned about your child, it’s important that you don’t suffer in silence. Speak to the school and the GP and if they can’t help, you may be referred to specialist help. Whatever you do, don’t blame yourself for the situation and remember: you’re not alone.

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