Category Archives: Mental Health

Recognising the signs of Mental Health in Children

No parent, teacher or carer wants to bear witness to a child suffering for any reason. Mental illness is exceptionally difficult to watch because you can’t see or comprehend the source and it can be so incredibly painful.  We know that presently 1 in 10 children in every primary and secondary school is experiencing some form of mental  disorder. 13% of children aged 8 and up will experience a severe mental disorder before they are old enough to drive; sobering statistics.

Mental disorders among teens and young adults have been rising steadily for the past decade. The reasons could be environmental (i.e. family, school & social media), situational (i.e. a traumatic event), physical (i.e. hormones & genetics), or indeed a combination of these. But we also know that we as a society are slowly becoming more willing to open up about our needs and thus the recognition of the complexity in young people’s lives is increasing. I also believe that social media has played its part in the ongoing impact of mental health needs.

In 2017, according to a study from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 13% of people between ages 12 and 25 had symptoms akin to major depression (they may not have been diagnosed) within the previous year—a 57% increase from 2008.

Now more than ever, opening up the conversation means so much and continues to make a positive difference to children’s lives.

 Does your child need support?

One of the biggest challenges for parents and carers is recognizing and identifying the difference between a psychological issue and the normal developmental changes that happen during these formative years. Adolescence involves the very greatest brain changes for a person. It is very much a rollercoaster, both positive and negative; mood swings, disinhibition and dysregulation are to be anticipated and expected. Ultimately it means that adolescents are also vulnerable to mental health difficulties too.

If you suspect that something is not going well for your child and are concerned about their mental health needs it is important to look at their behaviour at home, school and within their social groups.

Family functioning.

It’s normal for family members to squabble and have disagreements, as well as for kids to push back against parental rules and boundaries. However if your child is suddenly getting into frequent or escalating conflicts with family members that don’t get resolved, that’s a warning sign of a potential problem.

Academic functioning.

School is a major portion of any child’s life, so significant changes in results or attitude and application about school or schoolwork that are out of the ordinary could be an indicator of a potential difficulty. Teacher input is often a helpful first step.

Social functioning.

Is your child struggling to get along with friends and classmates? Has she withdrawn from or become reluctant to participate in social activities? If yes, these are all warning signs and it is important to gently notice and identify these feelings for your child.

Common Symptoms of Mental Illness in Children

Psychological problems can largely be divided into two areas; externalizing or internalizing.

As you might guess, externalized behaviour problems are easier to spot, because signs include things you can see: behavioural changes, fighting, hyperactivity and destructive behaviour. Internalized problems are often emotional (such as depression) and thus much more difficult to spot.

Here are six symptoms to watch out for:

Mood changes.

All children (and adults) are prone to mood swings. But pay attention to the point where children are very sad for extended periods of time or become lethargic and withdrawn, not enjoying or engaging in previously exciting activities. 

Intense feelings of anxiety.

Be alert for a child who’s overly anxious, especially if it leads to physical symptoms like a racing heart. While a little bit of anxiety is normal and can be a good thing—if it motivates your child to study or practice, for instance—“too much impairs performance, and children really suffer.” Two easily overlooked physical signs are: unexplained headaches or stomach-aches.

Difficulty concentrating.

A teacher might report that your child is having unusual trouble sitting still or paying attention, or you may notice this problem at home.

Changes in eating or sleeping habits.

If your child is suddenly suffering from insomnia—or, conversely, tries to sleep all day—it could be a signal to seek psychological support.

Quick weight loss.

A noticeable lack of appetite or quick weight loss could indicate developing issues with concern to a possible eating disorder, especially in adolescents.

Experimentation with illicit substances.

Many adolescents try cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. If this behaviour coincides with declining grades or a change in peer group it is again an area of concern and it is vital that the channels of communication remain open with the young person.

As a Chartered Educational and Child Psychologist of 15 years, Hannah Abrahams specialises in working with Children, Young People, Parents and Carers in supporting the development of their emotional, cognitive and learning needs as well as their mental health. She is highly experienced and has worked in many challenging settings including running a team of Psychologists working with the survivors of the Grenfell Tower. As well as being a lead in Trauma and Bereavement she specialises in working with Children diagnosed with Autism and communication difficulties. Hannah regularly talks as an expert on BBC Radio and TV.  She would be delighted to open up further conversation and supportive, nurturing and creative advice about mental health issues facing young people and how in today’s busy world you are best equipped to navigate and best support children’s wellbeing.

Reducing the chance of eating disorders

How to reduce the chance of children developing eating disorders

The very word ‘eating disorder’ is enough to strike fear in most parents.  Latest estimates suggest that 1.25 million people have an eating disorder and that adolescence is the most likely time for this to develop.   

What is an eating disorder?

At the heart of all eating disorders is an unhealthy attitude to food.  The most common eating disorders are:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa – characterised by not eating enough and often excessive exercising
  2. Bulimia Nervosa – overeating followed by vomiting and laxatives in order not to gain weight
  3. Binge Eating Disorder – compulsive overeating that feels out of control

There are varying degrees of gravity for all of these and it is not always easy to determine when your child ‘tips over’ from healthy eating to problem eating, and then into a full- blown eating disorder.  The bottom line is, if you feel that food is dominating your child’s life, your best action is to seek treatment, as early intervention gives the best chance of recovery.

Why does someone get an eating disorder?

There is no one over-riding cause to why someone develops an eating disorder; there is a combination of influences such as genetics, family experiences and culture.  Parents don’t give their children an eating disorder, but there is much they can do to help reduce the chances of their children developing one.  

What can parents do? 

Parents’ main role is to create a positive home environment by:

  • Setting the right goals – ensure that the aspirations that you have for your child are not based on appearance and that you do not give the impression that you will love them more if ‘only they ate less’.  This includes paying more attention to what they say and do rather than what they look like.
  • Speaking your mind – we are all exposed to some pretty toxic ideas about body image.  This particularly applies to social media which bombards us with images that can distort our children’s attitude to body size.  We need to educate our children that there is no such thing as the perfect body and that prejudice against people who are overweight is wrong.  Too much time spent trying to achieve unattainable beauty is only going to lead to feelings of failure and is limiting your child’s development in more meaningful areas.  Recent research showed that an intervention for women with eating disorders, that encouraged them to criticise negative media images that associated appearance with self-worth, significantly reduced their negative feelings about themselves. 
  • Being comfortable with your own body shape – the more complete you are as parents with your own body, irrespective of size – the less likely you are to imply that having a less than ideal body shape is something to feel ashamed about.
  • Talking about feelings – eating disorders are a way of coping with difficult feelings, so encourage children to understand and express their emotions rather than placate them with food.  This will give you an opportunity to teach them strategies to use when they are feeling frustrated, angry or sad.  For example, taking a deep breath, talking the issue through with an adult, or even asking for a hug.
  • Being a good role model – you are their biggest influence.  If you pick at your food, criticise your own body and are constantly on a diet, your children will copy these unhelpful behaviours.
  • Not putting them on a diet – dieting rarely works and often affects self-esteem.  Most eating disorders start with a diet.  There can also be loads of other health implications such as stunted growth, osteoporosis and delayed puberty. 
  • Keeping children a healthy weight – overweight teenagers have a much higher risk of developing an eating disorder, but often its symptoms go unnoticed because they are masked by being overweight. 
  • Exercising for the right reasons – exercise is an important part of good health, but if you are spending hours in the gym each day trying to get the ‘perfect’ body then this will give children the wrong messages.
  • Boosting their self-esteem – this is probably the most important factor that protects children from developing an eating disorder.  One of the best ways to do this is by offering children choices, particularly as eating disorders often develop as a way of trying to take control of their lives.  Try offering them an array of healthy foods and let them serve themselves.  Even better get them involved in cooking healthy food.

Not only will these behaviours help to reduce the chances of your children developing an eating disorder but they are also great ways for maintaining a healthy attitude to weight and food for all the family.

Article by Tracey Bennett, specialist in Obesity & Weight Management

Teenage Happiness

Dear Rachel

“I’m struggling with depression and feeling happy in my day to day life.  Please give me some helpful hints on how to create a more happy life for myself.”

For my daily work supporting parents in corporates, I have spent a lot of time reading up on the psychology of happiness be that for adults or teens.

Sadly there appears to be an ‘unhappiness’ epidemic going on and depression rates are ten times higher than they were in 1960.  The age threshold of unhappiness is also getting lower. Fifty years ago the average age for the onset of depression was 29.5 years old.  Today it is almost half at 14 years old.

The first thing teens should do is try to define and understand what ‘happiness’ means to them, as it is incredibly personal. With the pressures of school work and social expectations (worrying about what others think of you and FOMO) teens often have the mistaken belief that if you work really hard, get good grades, are in the right social crowd, have the material possessions you desire, only then will you be happy.  In fact spending your life trying to achieve in all areas, often results in us feeling stressed and sad.

It actually works the other way round.  We become more successful in all areas of life when we are happier and more positive, as opposed to thinking we will be happy once we are successful.

Some top tips to nurture happiness.

  1. I have read countless studies which conclude that social interaction is the best prescription for happiness. One of the longest running psychological studies of all times is the ‘Harvard Men Study’ following Harvard students from the late 1930s through to the present day. 70 years of evidence concluded that our relationships with people matter more than anything else in the world. In a ‘Very Happy People’ study again the one characteristic amongst the happiest 10% was the strength of their social relationships.
  2. The thing to really stress here is that social interaction means being present, making eye contact and interpreting each other’s non-verbal cues.  This is entirely different to having 1000+ followers on Instagram, 185 likes for one post or keeping up 40 daily streaks on Snapchat.  The trouble is that time with family and friends may be the first thing to go. When you are unhappy, you are far more likely to withdraw and not feel like making an effort socially.  The more social support you have, the happier you will feel.
  3. Practice gratitude. Every day write in a diary or share with your family, 3 things you are grateful for.  It could be as simple as the sun was shining, there was no fish for lunch at school or you finally grasped a hard concept in maths. The more gratitude you feel and verbalise, the more you will get into the habit of noticing what there is to be grateful for and the happier you will feel.
  4. Be aware that you and only you are responsible for your own happiness. You can’t blame others for “making” you unhappy or rely on other people or things to make you happy.  Whilst you can’t obviously control everything that happens to you, you can choose what you think and feel about the things that happen.  It is your deep thoughts that drive your feelings and in turn your actions.  If a person is pessimistic when bad things happen, they feel bad and permanently negative. Optimists see negative events as only temporary and due to outside factors.
  5. How we feel is totally dependent on our mindset. Each person’s reality is based on their perception and understanding of the world. Practice positivity.
  6. Pursue things that you really enjoy, that you are good at and are meaningful to give your life purpose.  Everyone whatever age they are needs to try and find a strength or something they are passionate about and can feel truly engaged and lose track of time.  That may be a sport, playing an instrument, volunteering, reading, cooking, doing magic tricks. Anything that gives you real pleasure.
  7. Even at difficult times with lots going on, schedule something in your diary that you can really look forward to.
  8. Any form of exercise releases endorphins and helps to improve your mood.
  9. Meditation is very popular at the moment and to be honest not something I have much experience of but I know it works for others and helps to develop the pre -frontal cortex which is the part of the brain most responsible for happiness.
  10. I love this concept of a ‘Healthy mind platter’ from Dr Dan Siegel.

Balance in all these areas is key for a healthy mind.