The only certainty about mental health, is that we all have it. If we imagine it as a swinging pendulum, throughout out life times, our mental health moves between good mental well-being and poor mental well-being, depending on life circumstances, events and situations. Everyone can have days when their mental health feels more sensitive, but for some, realising that their mental health is suffering and needs support can be a shock.
For children and teenagers, brain development is ever changing and moving, children’s pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that supports rational thought, seeing perspectives, solving problems and regulation continues its development throughout childhood and adolescence. So, we cannot expect our children to know how to manage their own feelings without guidance and support.
In addition, as their primary responses come from their limbic brain system we can often see strong emotions, reactive and instinctive responses to issues – and not always the behaviours that we want to see. This can mean that we focus more on the behaviour, rather than the feeling as the behaviour is what we SEE. The important part of this to remember, is that the more children use those logical, rational and are taught to regulate and talk about their emotions, the strong those pathways in their brains will grow – so by supporting them consistently from a young age we can best prepare them for adulthood, and support the development of resilience and coping strategies which will support their mental health as they get older.
So, how do we keep an eye on the mental health of our children and teenagers?
Poor mental well-being has a catalogue of signs and symptoms, and no two children will present with identical issues. However, there are core signs that we can be aware of that may indicate our children need a helping hand to process what is happening in their minds:
A child may have one, or many of the above symptoms. They may also have different ones, but there will be a theme that there will be behaviours that you previously did not find them exhibiting.
What can trigger mental health symptoms to start?
Depending partly on a child’s resilience, will determine whether a trigger impacts a child. For instance, for one child, moving house can cause their world to crash down around them, for another it is a walk in the park. Equally, from my work as a therapist, for some children, the impact of a trigger may not be seen for 3-24 months after an event (sometimes longer).
Some core events that can trigger changes in mental health include (not exhaustive):
Different children – different reactions
When changes occur, the brain reacts from the amygdala – it’s threat sensor. If an event causes fear in a child, then it reacts with a fight-flight-freeze-faint response.
Children may fall into different response categories:
There is no right or wrong, children’s coping mechanisms depend on their resilience, their development and their support systems. A child who is left in a state of fear, learns that fear is a normal response. Whilst, a child who learns that they will be supported and helped will learn to reach out. The focus needs to be on how we support and work with that child long term to help them to process and move on from the event with positive coping strategies.
So, how can we help them?
1.Work with them to solve problems (don’t do it for them) – Children who experience anxiety or worries most often feel ‘out of control’ which is why their emotions escalate when they have ideas or changes thrown at them. Working with children to help them to find solutions to their own problems therefore helps them to develop stronger pathways in the pre-frontal cortex of their brain, which then helps them to regulate their feelings. This also supports them to develop resilience and feel that they can cope, as they have a set of options that they can refer to when faced with a difficulty. Equally, by involving children in finding solutions to their worries and challenges they are encouraged to talk through what is bothering them, which increases their positive coping mechanisms, teaching them that they can rely on trusted adults to help them when they are in difficulty.
When do we need wider help?
If your concerns about a children are not shifting, have been occurring for a longer period of time (more than a few weeks) or are increasing in their intensity you should seek medical advice.
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