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Looking after a child or young person's mental health

There are times when we all feel the strain. As parents and carers, there are ways we can support children and young people to give them the best chance to stay mentally healthy.

Some children and young people have enjoyed being off school, while others will have really struggled – with the coronavirus outbreak keeping them at home and away from friends. Others may be coming to terms with family problems, loss or changes to their living situation.

With nationwide and local restrictions being regularly reviewed, they may also have to deal with self-isolating because of an outbreak in school or another period of school closure, or have worries about getting or passing on the virus. It's still uncertain what further changes we all may face.

Feelings like these will gradually ease for most, but there are always steps you can take to support them emotionally and help them cope with problems they face.

There's support available if you feel you or they need it.

Top tips to support children and young people

Be there to listen

Regularly ask how they're doing so they get used to talking about their feelings and know there's always someone to listen if they want it. Find out how to create a space where they will open up.

How to start a conversation with your child

Support them through difficulties

Pay attention to their emotions and behaviour, and try to help them work through difficulties. It's not always easy when faced with challenging behaviour, but try to help them understand what they're feeling and why.

Help with difficult behaviour and emotions

Stay involved in their life

Show interest in their life and the things important to them. It not only helps them value who they are but also makes it easier for you to spot problems and support them.

Encourage their interests

Being active or creative, learning new things and being a part of a team help connect us with others and are important ways we can all help our mental health. Support and encourage them to explore their interests, whatever they are.

Take what they say seriously

Listening to and valuing what they say, without judging their feelings, in turn makes them feel valued. Consider how to help them process and work through their emotions in a more constructive way.

The Anna Freud Centre support guide

Build positive routines

We know it still may not be easy, but try to reintroduce structure around regular routines, healthy eating and exercise. A good night's sleep is also really important – try to get them back into routines that fit with school or college.

Sleep tips for children

Coronavirus and going back to school or college

Returning to education was a big step, and restrictions remain challenging for many. Get advice on how to make being back as smooth as possible.

Signs something is wrong

Around 1 in 8 children and young people experience behavioural or emotional problems growing up. For some, these will resolve with time, while others will need professional support.

It can be difficult to know if there is something upsetting a child or young person, but there are ways to spot when something's wrong. Look out for:

  • significant changes in behaviour
  • ongoing difficulty sleeping
  • withdrawing from social situations
  • not wanting to do things they usually like
  • self-harm or neglecting themselves

Remember, everyone feels low, angry or anxious at times. But when these changes last for a long time or are significantly affecting them, it might be time to get professional help.

You know your child better than anyone so, if you're worried, first think if there has been a significant, lasting change in their behaviour.

This could be at home, school or college; with others or on their own; or in relation to specific events or changes in their life.

If you're concerned or unsure, there is lots of support out there, including professional help in the support section of this page.

MindEd for Families also has information explaining some common behavioural problems in different age groups.

Looking after your own mental health

Parenting or caring for a child or young person can be tough. It's important to make sure you look after your own mental wellbeing, as this will help you support yourself and those you care about.

Try to recognise and acknowledge when you're feeling low or overwhelmed. Struggling with something or experiencing your own mental health problems does not make you a bad parent or carer.

It's completely normal to be worried, scared or helpless during difficult times, and feeling this way is nothing to be ashamed of.

Is there a friend, fellow parent or carer you trust enough to tell how you're feeling? Maybe there's family, friends or a colleague who could support you or allow you a break?

There's plenty of help out there. You should never feel like you have to cope on your own.

Young Minds has lots of support for parents, including a helpline and guidance around parenting with a mental illness.

Mind has information and suggestions on how to manage parenting with a mental health problem.

Scope has advice on managing stress when caring for a disabled child.

Get support

If you're concerned about a child or young person's mental health, you can get free, confidential advice via phone, email or webchat from the Young Minds Parents Helpline.

Action for Children has lots of tips to help you spot signs of mental health issues in children and advice on the action you can take to help.

Barnardo's has also set up the See, Hear, Respond support hub – a dedicated service to help children, young people and their families or carers with problems caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Experiencing the loss of a friend or loved one can be extremely difficult. The Childhood Bereavement Network has information and links to national and local organisations you or the child you look after might find helpful.

Any professional that works with children and young people should be able to help you get support. You could talk to a teacher, school nurse, social worker or GP.

You can find more information about NHS children and young people's mental health services (CYPMHS) on the NHS website. You can also look at your local Clinical Commissioning Group website, and most services also have their own website with information about access, referrals (including whether you can "self-refer") and contact details – try searching in your area for "CYPMHS" or "CAMHS" (children and adolescent mental health services, an older term used for some CYPMHS).

If you are worried about a child or young person who has or may have an eating disorder, check if your local Children and Young People's Community Eating Disorder Team accepts self-referrals and contact them as soon as possible. You can also speak to your GP. Beat has lots more useful advice for children, young people and adults.

If you look after a child that has additional needs, Mencap, the Mental Health Foundation and the National Autistic Society all have excellent resources and support for parents or carers of children with learning disabilities or autism.

Do not hesitate to get urgent support if you think either you or your child needs it.