“10-20% of children and adolescents experience mental health issues but only one-thirds of them get any help.” – World Health Organisation, United Nations.
Adults are fairly self-aware of their thoughts, feelings and emotions. They have words to describe them, methods to cope, and the agency to look or ask for help when they need it. In most cases, children don’t have any of this.
Children grow at such a fast pace- both physically and psychologically- that it’s often very hard to differentiate between new, age-appropriate behavior, and behavior that might be a sign of an underlying problem. Most children also don’t have the vocabulary or developmental ability to express what they’re feeling and why.
Even so, not being able to express their emotions doesn’t mean that they don’t experience them! It simply means that they don’t know the names of the emotions they’re feeling. As children grasp language, they begin to talk about “good” and “bad” feelings. As they grow and experience different situations, they gradually work their way up to more complex emotions like shyness, excitement, frustration and curiosity, to name a few. However, in the time it takes for the child to work up to naming more complicated feelings and communicating them to the caregivers, a mental health issue may develop.
The key to managing mental health issues in children is early intervention. This intervention can only happen after early detection which can only happen after prompt observation. The road to raising a child with good mental health thus begins with the people the child spends the most amount of time with- the family unit and school.
Paying more attention to a child’s behavior in these settings gets even more important when stressful or new experiences occur. As adults, these events are brushed aside as “a part of growing up” or “it happens to everyone”. These views are developed over time, so a child who has quite literally only spent three or four years in comparison to an adult’s twenty or thirty years, will have trouble understanding how these events are affecting them. Events such as witnessing a car crash, having a family member die or even introducing a new child into the family can be triggers for a mental health issue. Experiencing abuse themselves, witnessing a parent abusing or being abused, living with a family member whose own mental health issues are not being managed or having a prolonged or chronic illness can also have negative effects on a child’s mental health.
Here are a few behaviors to keep an eye out for:
- Extreme changes in appetite or sleep.
- Social withdrawal or sudden fear of specific things.
- Returning to behaviors more common in younger children, such as bed wetting or thumb sucking.
- Signs of being upset, such as tearfulness or biting and hitting.
- Signs of self-destructive behavior, such as head-banging or suddenly getting hurt often.
- Have frequent tantrums or are intensely irritable much of the time.
- Complain about frequent stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause.
If your child or a child or a child you know has recently begun showing any of these behaviors, you can casually talk to the child and ask them about recent events in their lives. Continue to keep an eye on them and talk to other people who are involved in their life (including but not limited to the parents) but remember to always maintain a focus on the child, not on what someone is or isn’t doing or where something is going wrong.
We have a responsibility as more knowledgeable and experienced adults, to look out for the little humans in our lives. Stepping in to start a conversation about a child’s mental health, will almost always lead to the child living a better life.