How To Help Children Living With Mental Health Conditions

Parents frequently tell me they want to help their children but don’t always know how or what is best. Those of us who work on the frontline in mental health can offer some practical help.
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One in eight children in England is living with a mental health disorder says new NHS research. One in eighteen pre-school children now has at least one mental health condition and a quarter of 11 to 16 year olds with a mental health disorder has self-harmed or attempted suicide. Among teens aged 17 to 19 with a disorder, that figure is as high as 46.8 per cent.

Life stressors are increasing for young people as a result of high expectations in education and constant internet access. As a society we need to focus more on helping young people become resilient, to understand their feelings, develop healthy coping strategies and help others in need, and then see how rewarding this is, and that needing help is not something that should be stigmatised. Young people may then ask for help when needed.

Parents frequently tell me they want to help their children but don’t always know how or what is best. Every child and situation is different. But those of us who work on the frontline in mental health can offer some practical help.

1. If children have intense emotions and turn to self-harming, tell your child to hold some ice really tightly (it feels like it is burning but will not do damage). As the ice melts they might feel their tension melt away.

2. Use a traffic light system with your child so you know when their anxiety might turn to physical harm against themselves or others. Ask them if they would apply a red, amber or a green light to their problem, with red being the most acute. When they are calmer, ask them how they would like you to react depending on ‘which colour they feel they are’. Knowing you will react in a way your child agrees with means your child is more likely to share his or her feelings and risks with you. At the red level, school and experts’ involvement may be necessary.

3. Remind your child it’s normal to experience strong emotions such as sadness, anger, fright and anxiety, but these don’t last, and you can do things to help them such as watching funny YouTube clips, talking things through, taking exercise together.

4. Young people often ‘catastrophise’; they believe they will fail in life spectacularly. Help them look at the true evidence regarding their hard work and their individual skills and qualities, so they can challenge irrational thinking with evidence.

5. Help children ‘problem solve’ and form a plan so that even if their immediate hopes are not fulfilled, there are options and a future.

6. Remind your child you love them unconditionally.

7. Encourage them to talk to you about how they are feeling and explain you have felt like that too in times of stress.

8. Let your child know they can always contact a supportive charity such as ChildLine or the Samaritans anonymously by telephone or via a web chat if they need a confidential discussion.

9. Encourage them to exercise vigorously for 20 minutes each day; it will help improve mood and sleep patterns.

10. If your child is suffering intense stress, distract and divert. There are things you as a parent can do to help their emotions change quickly

11. Watch a scary film together, read a funny book, watch humorous clips on the internet, look at old photos of yourself, or them, as a baby

12. Encourage your child to ‘stop their thought train and get off it’. Encourage them to build a brick wall, metaphorically, between themselves and their stressful thoughts.

13. Urge them not to think about their exam or test worries except for short periods, say 10 minutes morning and night. (This is not suggesting they don’t revise, but that they block out the worry.)

14. Get your child to think of a relaxing memory as a safe place to go to in their head. Ask them to describe it to you in detail, including the sounds, smells, lights, textures, the conversations, the emotions they remember. This can help them relax and distract them from their worries, and, with practice, they can take themselves back there in their head at times of stress.

15. If the anxiety does not seem to improve, and anxiety feels outside the normal range in severity, or length, get help via your GP. Your doctor can refer your child to a psychiatrist and having brief therapeutic intervention can make a significant difference in a short period. Many of Priory’s Wellbeing Centres offer Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, with fast access to mental health experts.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email:
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on