EducationHealth + Wellness

Don’t wait for a crisis: The importance of early intervention in child mental health

Special feature in association with Dare to Differ and West Kent Mind

The recent increase in the awareness of Mental Health which has provided a greater emphasis and understanding of the issues young people face in society. With this comes a greater empathy, more awareness and support for those experiencing mental health issues. This is great but…How do you know the signs to look for in your child/young person? How do you access support? And how do you know where to get support if needed? 

Early identification is key to actioning support early on when a young person needs it, it helps action support before it hits crisis point and can often lead to the young person’s mental health significantly improving vs declining if left for a longer period of time.

“With Public Health England reporting that 50% of mental health issues are established by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24. Enabling our children to talk openly about their thoughts and feelings is crucial.” West Kent Mind.

West Kent Mind acknowledges that whilst the sources of stress for our children are not hugely different to our own, it is widely agreed that children are under more pressure than ever before. Whether the pressure is emotional (including social media, peer pressure or bullying), environmental (including academic pressure), physical (unhealthy sleep patterns, poor diet, lack of routine) or life changes (changing schools, family relationship breakdown or bereavement), everyone has a limit to what they can healthily cope with and this differs for everyone. As parents, we tend to focus on the behavioural manifestations, which we may interpret or see as stroppy behaviour, monosyllabic responses, a lack of focus on school work, etc, when instead we need to be more aware of what might be causing this behaviour. As adults it is crucial how we listen, respond and validate our children’s feelings, without undermining their significance. Part and parcel of this is also being aware, as parents, of our own judgements and preconceived perceptions.

Early intervention begins at home and keeping channels of communication open will help to ensure that children and young people feel able to talk to you when things get tough. Enabling positive and supportive conversations and feeling heard enables a young person to feel that their concerns are being taken seriously. As parents, we need to be aware of changes in behaviour or patterns, no matter how small, that may indicate something is wrong. 

According to Dare to Differ, behaviours are a signifier of responses to actions, environments and emotions, and they can help us to notice early changes and signs that something is not quite right. It is important to distinguish between general developmental stages of behaviour and behaviours that signify something else; but reassure yourself that you know your young person best. Trust your instincts and act on those early signs of behaviour changes. Every young person is different and you are best placed to know if it is an unusual behaviour.

Recognising changes to behaviour:

Whilst behaviours to look out for in early identification vary for each individual, some behaviour changes to look out for are:

  • Becoming withdrawn.
  • Being secretive.
  • Having a new friend group or withdrawing from friends.
  • Becoming more argumentative or emotional.
  • Changes in eating habits. 
  • Changes in social habits.
  • Not communicating. 
  • School refusal. 
  • Behaviour changes at school/college/home. 
  • Changes in appearance. 
  • Isolating themselves.
  • Aggression.
  • Covering up areas of the body normally visible.
  • Not being truthful.
  • Lack of interest in anything or interest centred on a negative area. 

What to do when you recognise that something just isn’t right:

Be open and honest, approach your child/young person in a calm and supportive manner. Ask your child/young person if everything is OK, don’t make assumptions even if you feel you are right, wait for your child to explain or open up. 

“It should not be underestimated how powerful good communication can be in preventing our children and young people from developing more serious mental health issues.” West Kent Mind

Try to:

  • Avoid confrontation and language that is challenging or blameful. If you feel you are unable or feel you cannot remain calm try again another time. 
  • Take an interest in their lives.
  • Get to know who their social circle is.
  • Have clear values and expectations for home so your child/young person feels secure and safe. This will enable your child to feel more able to speak with you when they are ready.

What to do next:

If you are worried or concerned there are next steps you can take to get support.

There are many organisations that offer advice and support, it is important to remember that no parent is an expert in parenting or expected to be, there isn’t a ‘how to manual’ and quite often parenting comes from our own experiences. If you feel you would like to access support for your child/young person seek advice, the first steps to take would be to speak to your child/young person’s GP or school/learning environment who can guide you to relevant organisations and begin your young person’s support journey.

Together we can teach our children the importance of talking about how we are feeling. 

For further advice and support please contact:

Dare to Differ: www.daretodiffer.org or call 01843 609366 

West Kent Mind: www.westkentmind.org.uk or call 01732 744950

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