Our children can feel overwhelmed by the pressure to perform, excel, keep up, whether that’s striving for an A* in every test and exam or responding in the ‘correct’ way to every new image on social media. One in 10 children aged between 5 and 16 have a diagnosed mental health problem - that’s three children in an average class.
“Parents play a crucial role in promoting good mental health in their children and this has never been more important,” says James Harris from the Mental Health Foundation. “We know that about 50% of adult mental health problems begin before the age of 15.”
So what can parents do to protect their children from this epidemic of anxiety and depression? We asked child psychotherapists, psychologists, mental health experts and parents to share their advice. And some of their suggestions may surprise you.
It’s OK not to feel OK
“Good mental health is about managing your response to difficult events. Let your children know that we all feel angry or upset sometimes - and that’s OK. Let them say the bad stuff first - that they’re worried about the test, that they didn’t get chosen for the football team, that they hate so-and-so. Acknowledge how they must be feeling and don’t gloss over those important feelings with ‘it’ll be fine’ platitudes or rush to try and sort it yourself.”
Child psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas
Don’t baby your child
“Don’t do anything for your children that they’re capable of doing for themselves. You will need to leave more time at first, but it’s worth it if you want to raise confident children who know how to think and act independently. Children have to learn to take a chance, not expect someone else to make life OK.”
Noel Janis-Norton, parenting educator and author of the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting series.
“Without a good night’s sleep, my children are simply unable to cope with what the day may throw at them. When it’s my teenagers’ bed time, they leave their devices downstairs so they’re not tempted to watch one more video or lose another hour on Snapchat. That was the solution we came up with as a family - it’s not a trust issue, just that it’s easier if temptation is further away.”
Mum-of-three Jenny Beauchamp.
Keep talking - and listening
“There are steps we can all take, young and old alike, to understand, protect and sustain good mental health. These include talking about your feelings and accepting who you are. Sometimes these conversations can be difficult, and children may not feel like they want to confide in a parent. When you suspect that your child is struggling it can be difficult to give them the space to discuss their feelings in their own time. Keep lines of communication open, these conversations often occur naturally at a point when your child feels comfortable discussing it.”
James Martin, spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation.
Teach the value of kindness
“Our children are surrounded by images of perfection, particularly on social media. Talk to your children about what’s real and what’s important; what’s on the inside rather than the outside - being kind, supportive, loyal, funny and how important it is to surround yourself with real friends, family members and people who love them for themselves.”
Empty praise is exactly that
“Telling children they’re beautiful, clever, wonderful is just background noise. It’s meaningless to them. But if you tell them how proud you were when they did something brave, didn’t give up, tried hard, were kind to someone... that specific, earned praise means something to them and you can see them positively glow. Also, you can remind them of those occasions the next time they feel down or that they can’t do something.”
Mum-of-two Jayne Humphries.
Teach that effort matters more than success
“Effort is in your child’s control but achievement isn’t always.”
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair, author of The Happy Child: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Enthusiastic, Happy Children.
Talk about social media - a lot
“Our kids are exposed to nastiness - and fake perfectionism - in a way we never were because of social media, which is unavoidable. If someone is mean in the playground, you can avoid them, but social media allows people to feel detached, that their behaviour has no consequences. Engage in conversations with your children about what they’re seeing and doing and how they feel. Look at what they’re looking at. It’s not enough to turn on a parental filter and think that’s it.”
Child psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas.
Show them no one’s perfect
“As parents and carers, you play a vital role in helping to prepare your children for the difficult times that life brings. Let your child know it is perfectly normal to feel upset or angry sometimes. As a parent, you can be an emotional role model for your children by showing them how to behave when you’re frustrated or upset.”
Keith Harvey, spokesperson at Place2Be.
“Remember you’re their role model so how you express disappointment and how you show you overcame setbacks is important. Tell your child, ‘You never learn less’ and that whatever happens, everything is a valuable experience.”
Make exercise part of their lives
“My children thrive when they play sport regularly - the exercise improves their moods, being part of a team boosts their confidence and they have an escape route from the school obsession with exams, revision and homework.”
Mum-of-four Penny Taylor.
Find excuses to drive your kids places
“All the most important conversations I’ve had with my children about their state of mind and what’s really happening in their lives have been when we’re sitting side by side in peace and comfort, just chatting easily, sharing experiences and not giving each other laser eye contact.”
Dad-of-two Sean Marlowe.
Don’t give your child a false view of their ‘specialness’
“Of course, your child is special to you. But be careful not to give them the impression they deserve to be top. We can’t all be top. Allow your child to fail - and learn from that experience.”
Child psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas
Popular isn’t all that
“Teach your children to look behind the facade, especially on social media. Talk to them about how being popular doesn’t make for happiness - loud, sociable, perfect-teeth people can be stressed and worried.”
Seeking help when you need it is a strength, not a weakness
“Children and young people need to develop the skill to be able to connect with others, to not feel alone and isolated.They need to be able to seek out other people in tough times - friends, family, teachers, even counsellors - and know that it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.”
Keith Harvey, spokesperson for Place2Be.