You do not have to be an expert to talk to your child about mental health.
No one knows your child as well as you do and as a parent you can often tell when there's something wrong because you notice small changes in their behaviour.
Broadly speaking, this will come to your attention if your child becomes withdrawn, quieter than usual and generally disengaged with the family, peers and their schooling. 'Acting out' is common too, whereby the changes that you can't help notice are more aggressive actions, defiance and confrontation.
Either way, how can you tell if this is a normal part of growing up through the primary years, usual adolescent development, or an emerging mental health problem? Well at this stage, you can't, but what you can do is take the changes seriously, because if it is the start of a mental health difficulty, then the sooner your child gets help the better.
So you need to check out your instincts and think through the evidence. Have the changes you've spotted been going on for a while? Are they persistent and prolonged? How extreme are they? How are they affecting you and other members of the family? Once you've thought this through then there are several possibilities for the way forward.
One option is to talk with other family members, your friends, your child-minder or your child's teacher(s) to see what they've noticed. Two heads are usually better than one, and comparing your experiences is likely to be helpful. If your child is "as good as gold" for everyone else, then it's likely that you as the parent are bearing the brunt of this phase, and your child is likely to come through it sooner or later - this too will pass! But if others are noticing similar changes then it might be time to take some action.
Talking to your child about your concerns is really important because it shows you care. But when you do, do it with some thought and planning beforehand.
Some key points to remember are:
- Choose a time when you can give them your full attention- not when you're late for work, or your favourite TV programme is about to start
- Short, informal chats can make a big difference - whenever and wherever they happen. Think about when you're on a regular 'taxi run' or unloading the dishwasher/doing the washing up. The distraction of the activity will make the conversation less intense
- Be sensitive when you tell them you've noticed some changes and you're wondering if they're OK
- Ask open questions to help them talk to you. Don't judge, or try and solve their problems, just listening can be a great help in the first instance
- It is important to remember to respect that they may not want to talk to you today but by opening the conversation then they may choose to talk with you another time
- Remember you do not have to be an expert, its ok to not know or understand everything about mental health. Everyday words are often helpful - like stress, feeling low, being worried or anxious. You could even learn together
There are also some excellent resources available that may help you, including Young Minds, which has a good website, and offers free, confidential online and telephone support.
MindEd for Families is also an brilliant, accessible and easy to understand online resource for parents and carers , with masses of information and guidance
Should you feel out of your depth and think that it's professional advice that you need, then why not find out if you're fortunate enough to have access to a counsellor at your child's school? They will be open to listening to your concerns about your child and support you with either talking to them yourself, or help you make an appointment for them with the counsellor.
After that, don't hesitate to make an appointment with your GP. They ought to be able to either reassure you or signpost you to any relevant local services that may help.
Seeing your child distressed and troubled is difficult, there's no doubt about that. But when parents notice and take action, it can make the world of difference. Early intervention is key.
Karen Cromarty is an independent advisor to the Department for Education, specialising in children and young people's mental health and counselling
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