Whether you are a parent, carer, or sibling, you might have a young person in your life that you truly care about but aren’t entirely sure how to best support. Being a child is a challenging experience, and mental health can be a rollercoaster during these years.
Like improving a child’s physical health, improving a child’s mental health isn’t an easy thing to do, but a positive impact can be made with the right behaviours and, more importantly, the right attitude.
Committing to helping a young person is all about knowing what to do and, equally important, when to do it, but we can all help!
Identifying when a child is having difficulties
Before trying to improve a child’s mental health, it is essential to know when a child or young person is experiencing mental and emotional difficulties. It’s more challenging to detect this in those without the articulation or understanding of adults, but it can be done.
1. Psychological and mental variation
Most difficult to spot are those signs that are occurring inside a child’s head. Thoughts and ideas are invisible to us, but their presence can be given away by the impact they have one other cognitive functions and processes.
Identifying if a child is struggling can be as simple as noticing a decline in their schoolwork, issues with their attention or concentration levels, or an unusual level of forgetfulness.
When a child isn’t feeling right, they haven’t got the experience adults do to think and perform as normal. As a result, the effects of poor mental health are less easily hidden.
2. Physical variation
In a similar way to how thoughts affect the brain, poor mental health or mental health conditions can manifest as changes in the body.
Those who are struggling with thoughts or feelings may find a means of handling it to be either consciously changing their body or engaging in behaviours that indirectly alter its appearance.
The most obvious of these signs can be weight loss (due to fasting) or weight gain (due to over eating). However, young people can also self-harm as a means of coping with difficulties, and signs of this can be hidden much more easily.
3. Social variation
Children are socially active, a lot more so than adults. Part of the way they learn and understand more about the world is through their interactions with adults – parents, teachers, relatives – and other children.
As a result, it is a clear sign that a child is struggling if they show changes in their social activity or a decline in their social skills.
If a child refuses to play with their friends, doesn’t like taking to adults they have previously been comfortable around, or demonstrates fear at having to be around others, they may be in need of support.
4. Understanding triggers
Beyond a particular child’s behaviours, it can also be important to acknowledge anything which may have happened which could impact a child’s mental health.
Although they may not be showing signs of struggling, life-altering events can impact children in subtle but profound ways, and how they choose to handle tough times can even make things worse.
As a result, consider whether any of the following events have occurred in the recent past, and perhaps also how a child’s behaviour might have changed since:
- Divorce of parents
- Death of a relative or friend
- Moving home
- Changing school
- Parent leaving home for work
- Sibling leaving home for university/work
10 Ways to improve a child’s mental health
If you have recognised signs that a child may be experiencing mental health challenges, you will naturally want to help. However, directly addressing the problem may not be the most effective way to go about it.
A child may reject your concerns, either from a lack of desire to talk about their mental health or even a lack of awareness that there is even a problem. As a result, there are a variety of alternative ways you can engage with and support them.
1. Be a pair of ears for them
A child is more likely to open up about their thoughts and feelings if they identify you as someone they can talk to.
If they see you as always being too busy or have tried to talk to you before and been rejected, they will naturally resist opening up about their feelings if asked.
However, if you regularly encourage the child to talk to you about a range of more general topics – school, friends, sports – they will see speaking with you as a more natural thing to do. When things get difficult, therefore, they will see you as an outlet.
2. Play a role in their life
It’s a fact of life that children trust and bond with those they see on a daily basis. Who picks them up from school, drives them to fun activities, and puts them to bed will become a large pillar of their worldview, and therefore someone they will look to for support.
As a parent or carer, playing a key role in a child’s life and getting involved in what they do can not only improve the chances of them opening up about how they feel, but give them a greater sense of stability and connection which improves their emotional wellbeing.
3. Push them to chase their passions
Being such a formative period of life, children will have lots of interests and want to take part in a range of activities.
Sport, art, music, reading, dancing, acting, singing – they will likely want to try a lot of things, but showing resistance to their pursuing of these leads will increase the risk of them developing emotional frustrations.
Giving a child more freedom to try different things will help them discover a sense of self which promotes and sustains a healthy worldview, and your actively encouraging them to pursue their dreams will give them the confidence to become who they want to be.
4. Listen to what they’re telling you
It can be easy to dismiss what children say. They will say a lot of things that make no sense, and a lot of their learning process will involve copying and mimicking what they hear from others and the media. However, be careful not to dismiss everything.
If a child opens up and expresses distress, take it seriously. If they are dismissed, they will not only keep their problems to themselves from then on, but might also develop the idea that other people don’t care about them, worsening their mental health as a result.
5. Implement daily routines
Regardless of a person’s age, having a routine is fundamental to stable mental health and keeping emotions in check. Children learn to see routines as comforting structures thanks to school, but those who lose their routine can really struggle.
Try and build a routine independent from school that a child can rely on throughout the year. Waking up at the same time, eating at the same time, having chores – all of these things can contribute to helping a child develop a stronger mental and emotional basis.
6. Do everything with consistency
The same benefits of developing a routine apply for being consistent. Just as we rely on routines for developing our understanding of the world, we look to the reactions of others to inform how we are to react, feel and behave in different situations.
When interacting with the child, try to ensure your attitudes and reactions to what they say and do are consistent. If they experience a range of responses for the same actions, they may develop mental health issues resulting from frustration and confusion.
If they don’t know what kind of reaction they will get for their behaviour, a child will be more likely to isolate themselves. However, if they know there are people they can rely on, they will feel more secure.
7. Boost their self esteem
Mental health issues can often arise from a lack of confidence. Individuals can turn in on themselves if they believe they are untalented, unimportant, or useless. With children, they can feel similar emotions if they are given no external affirmation of their abilities.
Combatting poor mental health can therefore be achieved by telling a child that they are valued and have meaning. Being honest with them and encouraging them to do things from time to time is more than enough as this will give them the belief to trust in themselves.
8. Have quiet time together.
Time is a valuable thing when it comes to relationship development. For parents and children, simply being around each other without the distractions of school, work, or other people can go a long way in boosting the emotional connection they share.
If a child seems to be struggling, they may feel detached from their family and therefore feel alone. Spending time together can work at reversing this and give them a foundation upon which they can start feeling more secure and content.
Family meals offer a great opportunity for this, creating a pocket of quiet in what otherwise may be a very busy life.
9. Look after your own mental health
What many may overlook when trying to support someone else is that they cannot be effective if they themselves are struggling. Engaging with someone else’s thoughts and emotions can be challenging, so offering help must begin with ensuring you are okay.
By checking in with yourself and protecting your own mental health, you not only make yourself more sensitive when it comes to hearing a child’s problems, but you also give them a model which they can look to replicate.
Therapy for children
Adults who experience mental health difficulties can find that attending therapy sessions really helps them engage with the underlying problem and develop healthy, dependable coping mechanisms.
Children can also benefit from therapy, but it’s important to know which methods are most suitable.
For many children, behaviour therapies can be really effective. These sessions target behaviours which result from and induce poor mental health, and they can be so helpful for children because they focus on ideas they can follow and understand.
As well as treating a child’s poor mental health, these therapies can also be a source of relief for parents.
Struggling children may demonstrate poor behaviour, and equipping them with coping mechanisms can in turn improve a parent’s ability to support them.
Identifying substance use in teens and young people
Poor mental health has a deeply rooted connection with addiction. Children and young people can be just as vulnerable as adults when it comes to developing dependencies, both with substances like drugs and alcohol as well as behaviours like gambling and gaming.
Spotting addiction in young people is therefore really important for combatting poor mental health. Some of the most common signs include:
- Refusing to make eye contact
- Staying out later than permitted
- Behaving recklessly
- Asking for money or borrowing it from friends
- Taking money without asking
- Isolating themselves in their room, perhaps locking it
- Being secretive about who they are talking to or hanging out with
- Sabotaging their personal relationships
- Being deceptive or dishonest
- Losing interest in school
- Refusing to listen to parents or teachers
- Abandoning hobbies and friends
Conclusion: it’s all worth it
Helping a child combat their poor mental health can be incredibly difficult, and there may be times when you think that progress will never come. However, persistence is the key to making positive change.
If you are feeling uncertain, remember that the child or young person will one day appreciate your efforts, and seeing them feeling happier and achieving their goals in life will be all the reward you could ask for. Everything gets better with perseverance.
Luciana, a proud Brazilian, blends her passion for jiu-jitsu with a deep-rooted connection to spirituality and well-being. Her dedication to the martial art reflects not just a physical discipline, but a holistic approach to life, seeking balance in mind, body, and spirit. Whether on the mats or in meditation, Luciana embodies the essence of harmony and inner strength.