How to help your child if you're worried about their mental health

It’s incredibly tough for a parent to watch their child struggle with their mental health.

You desperately want to fix everything and help them feel better – but where should you even start?

As it’s both Time To Talk Day and Children’s Mental Health Week, we spoke to Jack Parnell-Driver, a team leader for the YoungMinds Parents Helpline, for his advice on how to help a child who’s finding things difficult.

Jack takes thousands of calls every year from parents worried about their child’s mental health, so he knows his stuff – from the concerning signs to look out for to how to broach the topic of mental illness.

Signs something is wrong 

There are the obvious indicators – low mood, crying, anger, engaging in reckless or destructive behaviour.

But it can help to know the more subtle signs that your child needs support.

‘Young people are adapting to lots of changes as they grow up, so it’s normal for them to express raw emotions and change moods quickly,’ Jack tells ‘But if your child is consistently struggling, for example if you see a sustained change in their behaviour, sleeping or eating patterns, or if they seem to be upset over a long period of time, it’s important to take it seriously.

‘Parents often instinctively know when their child is going through something – so trust your instincts.’

How to talk to your child about mental health

We know it can feel scary to bring up the topic of mental health issues – but imagine how much harder it is for your child to ask for the help they need.

Try not too panic too much about saying the ‘wrong’ thing. Just keep the conversation open and give your child room to talk.

Jack says: ‘Remember that you know your child better than anyone else and if your child seems to be struggling, it’s important to talk to them about it.

‘It can be really difficult to start the conversation about mental health, but it’s a crucial first step.

‘You can start by telling them that you have noticed these signs. Take it gently and give them examples of what you mean.

‘Try to avoid closed [or vague] questions like “how are you?”, instead be more specific – for example, “When you can’t get to sleep, is there anything on your mind making you worried?”.’

Don’t be put off if your child doesn’t immediately spill everything.

Remain calm and be patient, reassuring them you won’t judge and are here to listen whenever they feel comfortable talking.

And choose your time wisely.

‘If they struggle to open up, keep going, even if it feels like you’re not getting through to them,’ says Jack. ‘Be interested in what your child is doing and have conversations about the things that they care about, whether that’s music, politics or sport, get them to teach you something.

‘Do something together like going for a walk, even if it’s just to the shops, and leave some silent moments to create space for your child to talk about anything that’s on their mind. Activities like baking, gardening or drawing cartoons of each other, can also help relax your child and encourage them to talk.

‘With older children, they might not want to talk at first. Let them know you are concerned about them, and are there if they need you. Sending an email or a text can work better if this is the way your child likes to communicate.

‘Ask your child what they think would help – they often have good ideas about solving their own problems.

‘When you do speak to them, remember to listen to them without judgement and say how pleased you are that they have managed to open up to you. I

‘t is normal for a parent to want you to try and ‘fix’ things straight away but sometimes they just need to know that you are there and understand how they are feeling. Remind them that you love them and that you’re proud of them.’

Seeking help

You don’t need to handle this alone.

If your child is unhappy, it’s okay to call in professionals. Start by talking to your family GP, bringing along a list of your child’s symptoms and behaviours, how long this has been going on, and any events and issues that may be having an impact.

Where to get support when your child is on a waiting list

We all know by now that talking doesn’t solve everything and accessing treatment can be tough.

Don’t give up hope.

Jack says: ‘We know how hard it can be for young people and their families when they are waiting for professional support but there are a few places you can turn to.

‘There is a lot of support online, and the YoungMinds website is a good place to start.

‘Telling your child’s school is also important and can help ensure that there is a support system in place for them. Research local charities, youth clubs and groups that might be able to help in your area and ask your GP if there are podcasts or books that they recommend.

‘There is also a lot you can do by just being there for your child and acting as their anchor during this time.

‘Maintaining hobbies, routines and normal parenting boundaries are really important as they keep the child grounded and can make them feel safe when their feelings are out of control. Keep communicating with them, praise them for what they do well.

‘We know how difficult and stressful this time can be for parents. Make sure you have a support network around you also, and someone you can talk to when you feel things are getting really difficult. For more advice, visit the YoungMinds website and we’re also able to provide free specialist support on our Parents Helpline.’

To talk about mental health in a private, judgement-free zone, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

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