Your child's mental health

Published on Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Most parents can spot a gunky eye or a grazed knee from a mile off, but when it comes to a youngster's mental health, it seems that many mums and dads are in the dark.

In fact, according to the latest Royal Children's Hospital (RCH) National Child Health Poll, from Melbourne, Australia, only 35 per cent of parents are confident that they could recognise the signs of a mental health problem in their child.

That leaves two-thirds of parents doubting their ability to identify or respond to the signs of mental health issues.

That wasn't the only significant finding to emerge. The RCH National Child Health Poll also found that:

  • Less than half (only 44 per cent) of parents are confident about knowing where to get help if their child is experiencing mental health issues.
  • Thirty-three per cent of parents didn't know that primary school-aged kids could get depression.
  • Parents who connect with their kids most days of the week were more confident that they’d recognise a mental health issue in their youngster.
  • Fifteen per cent of parents felt their child is too young to talk to and connect with, while 13 per cent weren't sure what to talk about or how to connect with their child.
  • And last, but definitely not least, one in three parents think that a kid's mental health problems might be best left alone to resolve over time.

How have experts reacted to the findings?

Director of the poll, Dr Anthea Rhodes is concerned that so many parents think inaction may be the best approach, and urges parents to seek help if they notice any social, emotional or behavioural problems in their youngster.

Dr Rhodes explains that, "Children can develop many of the same mental health difficulties as adults, but sometimes they can manifest in different ways, making them harder to recognise. Ignoring signs that may indicate a child is in need of help can result in the problem becoming more entrenched and much harder to treat."

She says the poll highlights a need for parents to be educated and supported, so that they can recognise the early warning signs of mental health issues and know where to get help.

Where can parents get support if they're worried about their child's behaviour and feelings?

Even if a parent is unsure about what their child is experiencing, help is at hand.

Dr Rhodes adds, "In this poll, parents reported their GP, teachers and school counsellors as potential sources of help for addressing concerns they might have about their child's mental health. This highlights the importance of investing resources to adequately train and support staff in schools and primary care providers to meet this need."

How can parents themselves support children's mental health?

Parents play a day-to-day role in their child's welfare by simply being there for them.

Dr Rhodes says, "Life is busy and full of distractions, but parents can make a difference to the mental health and wellbeing of their children by finding ways to focus on and connect with them as part of everyday life. It can be as simple as taking the time to read them a book, eating a meal together or having a chat on the way to school."

What are the signs of a possible mental health problem in children?

When it comes to symptoms, a quarter of parents polled didn't know that frequent physical complaints, such as headaches and tummy aches, can be a sign of a mental health problem in a child.

According to Kids Matter, the following behaviours and feelings may also point towards a mental health difficulty:

  • Frequent, unexplained tantrums
  • Unusual fears
  • Sleep problems
  • Ongoing feelings of sadness
  • Wanting to be alone most of the time
  • Regularly refusing to go to preschool or school
  • Problems getting along with other children
  • Hyperactive behaviour or constant movement that goes beyond regular playing
  • Noticeable disinterest or decline in school performance
  • Frequent, overly aggressive reactions
  • Severe problems with concentration, attention and organisation
  • Big behavioural changes over a short timeframe

Kids Matter says, "When problems occur for more than a few weeks and interfere with school, home, friendship or daily life, it is probably time to seek assistance" from a doctor or school counsellor.

To work out the best course of action, consider:

  • How severe the symptoms are
  • What impact they're having on the child
  • How their behaviour and feelings compare with other kids their age
  • Any experiences that might be influencing their behaviour
  • How the difficulties are affecting the child's behaviour, emotions, thoughts, learning and social relationships

Together, parents and professionals can help little people feel better.

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