Children’s Mental Health Week: How can we best support and nurture children to grow emotionally?

10 February 2022

Monday 7 to Sunday 13 February is Children’s Mental Health Week 2022. The theme for this year is ‘Growing Together’. Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Tosin Bowen-Wright gives advice on offering children the best environment to grow emotionally and build healthy relationships at school, at home, and in the community.

A whole-community approach to meeting the emotional and mental health needs of children, young people and their families is vital for supporting and promoting positive emotional wellbeing and mental wellness. Environments in which children feel safe, cared-for and heard are vital; knowing that the people around them want to and are able to help is so important to their ability to grow.

It is important that the environments in which children and young people spend time – schools, youth clubs, community centres and places of worship etc – understand their role in supporting children and young people, and the roles of the other organisations and places where they can receive appropriate help and support.

We can’t expect adults who care for children whether parents, carers or teachers, to always know everything. We need to ensure that they all know where they can get help or support or advice when they feel children would benefit from more than they can offer.

Tosin Bowen-Wright

How parents can help

As a busy parent myself, I know too well how hard it is to balance it all. In order to meet the emotional needs of our children, it’s important that we parents look after ourselves so we have the capacity to be sensitive and responsive to our children’s needs. For some parents this may mean taking regular exercise to wind down or find inner calm, finding time for a coffee alone or with a friend, burning a nice candle, even having ten minutes of peace to have a bath. Doing what you need to do to wind down and process your own day can enable you to have the emotional capacity to notice and be responsive to your child’s emotional and mental state. Children do well when their parents are doing well.

I would recommend daily time with your child to play or talk with them, this can take place during a walk on the way back from school, at the table when eating dinner, or after reading a book together at bedtime. Find out how their day has been and give them the opportunity to share any worries they may have, or celebrate the little things that have gone well for them for that day or that made them feel good or proud of themselves. This is a key element of ‘growing together’: children are able to manage difficulties when they know that there is going to be a time of the day when they can talk and share with their parents and be heard and understood.

However, there are times when you know that finding time and listening isn’t enough and that your child may need extra help or support. It’s helpful for parents to know there is support for them and that they can get direction about what may help their child. Sometimes having someone external to the immediate family can give a different perspective and ideas for help – try talking to someone in school, a trusted person in a place of worship or community centre, or going to speak to your GP.

I think the teachers in your child’s school can be a really helpful source of support. Children spend a lot of their time in school so it may well be the best port of call initially. Furthermore, schools often have external input through local CAMHS services, in-house emotional wellbeing programmes or pastoral staff that provide supportive and safe spaces for children to share and work through emotional difficulties. If they can’t provide support in school, they should be able to signpost parents to services that can, and support parents to access help.

Support in schools

There has been some investment into support for schools, through the establishment of Mental Health Support Teams in educational settings and the introduction of Children wellbeing practitioners, as part of the Government’s Transforming Children and Young people’s mental health plans. Schools are also doing a lot more these days to promote emotional wellbeing and to create inclusive and safe environments in which children develop good emotional literacy. Emotional literacy includes awareness and recognition of emotions and how to manage them, as well as developing empathy for others. Creating these safe spaces are key for young people to flourish and grow together.

It's important for children to know who they can approach in confidence if they feel they need someone to speak to or need help. Knowing there are adults who want to help and listen without judgment is essential for children and young people. Sometimes teachers may assume children know that they can talk to them, but some may be reticent to do so. Ensuring there is regular promotion of speaking to the class teacher or a member of the school pastoral team is a helpful reminder.

Simple tools like emotional temperature checks and anonymous ‘worry boxes’ provide safe spaces for children to share their thoughts and feelings about their experiences both in and out of school. For younger children, carving time out to talk about the worries and experiences of their classmates is a great way to support development of empathy, as well as teaching them to problem-solve and think about their role in creating a supportive environment.

Responding to struggle and worry at school and at home

Children express and communicate their struggles and difficulties in different ways. Some children act out through disruptive and challenging behaviours, some children struggle to focus and/or may fidget a lot. Some children may appear withdrawn, perhaps quieter than usual or tearful, easily upset by what may seem like trivial incidents and interactions with their peers. Check in with children, particularly when they seem to be presenting differently to usual, and remind them of sources of support.

Parent and teacher communication and working in partnership to support children is essential. Sometimes checking in with a parent to share what you’ve noticed about a child may alert the parent to something being wrong. Parents can have lots going on and don’t always notice subtle signs, I can attest to that! Equally, keeping an eye on a child and noticing how they present when they come into school and towards the end of the school day may also suggest sensitive issues that require a more considered approach. In those instances, conversations with senior colleagues may be helpful and support an approach that ensures a child is safeguarded in the process of working out if there is something serious that needs to be handled sensitively. This might involve a more formal conversation with parents or consideration of a safeguarding approach to make sense of what may be going on for a child where there may be difficulties at home.

It is also important for parents to appreciate that noticing difficulties can be challenging for teachers too. With all the demands and pressures teachers face, managing and educating a class with different levels of needs and personalities, it would be unfair to assume that they will notice everything, particularly children who don’t present with obvious difficulties. Approaching teachers and/or senior leaders in school to share worries you may have about your child, alerts them to difficulties that they can keep an eye on, as well as open up conversations about the options for help and support for your child.

Schools have a wealth of knowledge about the services available to support children with emotional and mental health difficulties. Good communication and working together facilitates the development of a safe, responsive and inclusive school environment which promotes positive emotional wellbeing and mental health. Additionally, GPs, key persons in community settings, such as places of worship, children’s centres and youth centres, can be a great source of support for parents who are worried. They will often be in a position to offer advice or signpost parents to services that can provide them and/or their child with help and support that they will benefit from.

Helping young people THRIVE

At the Tavistock and Portman we use the THRIVE Framework for system change (Wolpert et al., 2019), an integrated, person-centred and needs-led approach to delivering emotional wellbeing and mental health services for children, and young people. THRIVE emphasises ensuring children, young people and their families voices’ are at the heart of decision making. It provides a set of principles for creating coherent and resource-efficient communities of mental health and wellbeing support for children, young people and families. Additionally, at the heart of THRIVE is destigmatising mental health and ensuring that everyone feels that they have a role to play in supporting children and young people’s emotional wellbeing. We promote talking about mental health and wellbeing and provide a common language that everyone understands.

I am passionate about the use of the THRIVE Framework as an approach to bringing together services across different sectors, such as education, local authorities, primary care, third sector and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. It helps us to think differently about how we meet the emotional needs of children and young people and help them to build resilience and overcome challenges.

When parents and services work together in the best interests of children and young people it has many positive effects. Good communication reduces barriers to getting help, reduces waiting lists and consequently reduces the distress and frustration that children and families face when they can’t access the services they need in a timely manner.

We do still have a long way to go. However, I know that when education, health and care services work to ‘grow together’ too, with mutual respect and a sense of shared responsibility, they can provide the support that young people and their families need to THRIVE and fulfil their full potential.

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