In the second part of our exclusive series, This Morning’s resident psychologist Emma Kenny examines the most common issues children face that can damage mental health.
Bully-proof your child
Nearly half of UK children feel bullying is a problem and more than 16,000 children are absent from school at any one time because of it.
If your child has confided in you about being bullied, or if you suspect they may be, then it is time to take action.
Children who are bullied are at much higher risk of developing mental health issues, and early intervention is crucial.
■ Reassure your child that the bullying isn’t their fault and explain bullies like to get a reaction, like making another person cry. By helping your child not react, you are enabling them to become bully-proof.
■ Kids can feel bullied when they fall out with friends, but these situations often resolve themselves without adult intervention. Consider if your involvement will be helpful before you rush to challenge the headteacher.
■ Keep a bully diary and log every incident that your child discusses. This can be a helpful tool if you need to intervene as it’s a calm and practical way of demonstrating what your child has been going through.
■ Don’t tell your kid to just “get on with it”. This is really unhelpful and potentially harmful advice that will make your child feel worthless and responsible for their tough circumstances.
■ If you do speak to your child’s school and the staff fail to take action, get in touch with the Advisory Centre for Education (ace-ed.org.uk), which will give you the support you need to take action.
■ Bullying can happen in many different ways and cyber-bullying is now one of the most reported forms. Check your child’s social media accounts, with their permission, from time to time and pick up on any cyber issues early on.
■ Get your child involved in groups outside school. This has been proven to help reduce the impact bullies have. Creating positive relationships outside of school builds confidence and self-esteem.
Living life online
Technology has plenty of benefits. However research shows that too much screen time and not enough of other activities, such as reading, playing games and imaginative play, can affect children’s ability to communicate effectively.
■ If you want your children to be confident, communicative and creative, help them cultivate these traits. Timetable technology-free time every week so your children are used to being screen-free and excited about family fun time.
■ As kids grow into teenagers, technology becomes a major form of communication. While you may be worried about the amount of time your teens are online, communication is key to positive mental health and many children use technology for this purpose.
Chatting to friends on headsets while gaming, or texting mates, shouldn’t be dismissed. Teenagers say it makes them feel connected and part of a wider support network.
The social media trap
Recent research has likened young people’s excessive social media use to drug addiction. While comparing Instagram to crack cocaine may seem dramatic, it still gives us food for thought.
In the past decade, I have worked with many young people who feel their lives are going nowhere because they believe what they see on social media.
Rather than spending time cultivating their own potential, they instead get depressed watching others succeed.
■ Help your children understand the impact social media exposure can have on mental wellbeing. Encouraging them to take a ‘digital detox’ and switch off for a while will provide much-needed relief and the opportunity to explore emotions without feeling in competition with anyone.
Ask your teens to commit to two evenings and one weekend day a week without their social media.
■ If they struggle to switch off, encourage them to go outside for a 20-minute walk, or to do some exercise. Being active promotes positive wellbeing and self-esteem and will benefit your child physically.
■ Your child may feel anxious about missing out if they turn off social media. I encourage all my young clients to practise mindfulness. This can be as simple as getting them to go on a walk in nature, or learning some deep breathing exercises.
Is gaming dangerous?
There is much debate around the impact of video games on children’s mental health.
The evidence is mixed, with some research suggesting that there are more benefits than drawbacks, and other findings indicating the exact opposite.
Good mental health requires balance.
The majority of children who play age-appropriate games, for acceptable periods of time, will most likely feel it benefits their wellbeing – particularly when it involves games that connect them to their online peer network.
While gaming addiction is a recognised problem, the truth is you can’t create an addict. An individual who is going to become dependent will find something to be reliant on.
■ Use common sense. Ask yourself an honest question – are they spending too much time online? If the answer is yes, how are you going to intervene and offer them alternatives? You can’t simply take away an enjoyable activity without replacing it with another. Kids love spending quality time with their parents, so think of games you can play together, walks you can take or films you can watch as a family.
■ Should your child appear lost in their online world, withdrawn, secretive or unhappy, it is essential you suggest alternative activities to help them re-engage with the real world.
Why do kids self harm?
Self harm is on the rise, with 13% of 11-16 year olds admitting they have purposefully harmed themselves. In the past two years there has been a 70% increase in 10-14 year olds attending A&E for self-harm injuries.
If you suspect your child is at risk, swift action is required. Children self harm as a coping strategy. It may be an awful one, but it is used as a means to cope, and if you take that mechanism away, they need a replacement.
■ Try not to fear the harm. While it can seem extreme, it is an outward sign of an internal struggle and your child’s way of dealing with overwhelming feelings. But take it seriously – it is not attention seeking for attention’s sake, but a need in the child that isn’t being met. Check they are not visiting pro-harm websites, as they can encourage more serious injury.
■ Explain you know what they’re doing and want to help. Tell your child they don’t need to feel ashamed, but they do need to accept extra support. Don’t be surprised if they become angry – remember, this is their coping strategy and you want to take it away.
Offer your child alternatives, whether that involves helping them express their feelings, or something more practical, like squeezing a stress ball – anything that distracts them from the compulsion to harm can help disrupt the thought process.
Dealing with drugs?
The best influence you can have on your children is establishing a positive environment in which they can grow.
You cannot make every decision for them, but you can educate and inform your child so the choices they make come from a place of knowledge.
■ Young people use recreational drugs for a variety of reasons. For those who are well-adjusted, understand their limits and use drugs only occasionally, the likelihood is their mental health will not be adversely affected.
That said, research shows a third of young people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness will have used drugs in the last year.
While this may lead to the assumption drugs are the issue, the reality is more complex and has to do with young people in emotional turmoil, struggling to cope with their lives.
■ Research suggests young people who smoke very strong marijuana are at a higher risk of developing psychosis and are likely to feel more paranoid and anxious than non weed-smoking peers.
However, there is other research that indicates cannabis is useful for treating lots of chronic pain conditions, and these findings also concluded users were no more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression than those in the general population.
■ Young people who are unhappy, and who find an escape in recreational drugs, are likely to use them. Sadly, due to the pressures they face, and the lack of support they may have within their family unit, they are at a greater risk of struggling with mental health problems should they become reliant on drugs as a form of self-medication.
■ Any parent worries when they discover their child is using recreational drugs, but instead of feeling angry or scared, it is far more helpful to calmly discuss why they feel the need to take them. Keep communicating.
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