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How to look after your child’s mental health

After an unsteady year of lockdowns, school closures, and frightening news, many kids are struggling with their mental health. We talked to Town Close School about what can be done.

It’s been a turbulent year for all of us, and many kids have struggled with the constrictions of lockdown as well as anxiety over coronavirus. We talked to Town Close School about what might be affecting our children’s mental health, and what we can do about it.

What are the most common problems and anxieties that children are experiencing now?

Generalised low mood and depression have been the unsurprising results of lockdown for so many, in response to the multiple traumas of the last year – the fear of the virus, fear of death, fear of missing out (it’s real for children!), separation anxiety, grief, anger. It’s a potent mix of emotions that won’t turn off automatically like a tap even with the kids now back at school. To help ease children back to school gently, take the opportunity to talk about what’s happening in their lives, and how they feel, remembering that all emotions are valid, and should be acknowledged and accepted.

How can parents and schools work together to help make things easier for the kids?

Honest communication is key – it’s easy to say in theory but parents do need to share information with the school about any problems experienced at home, and also the school needs to feed back on any issues early and give advice on what parents should look out for at home. Most children are angry or withdrawn for a reason, not just because they want to torment their parents! At Town Close we offer practical support to the children by giving them a chance to talk and share their experiences, so do ask your school about counselling services – your child might find it easier opening up to a trained professional than you about their feelings.

What warning signs should parents be looking out for?

It’s about knowing what the ‘norm’ is and recognising when there’s a shift, whether that’s a significant change or something that slowly happens over several days or weeks. It could be a change in eating habits, withdrawing behaviour, bursts of anger, disinterest in things they usually love, lack of concentration, exhaustion, or none of the above. Your school should also be looking for anything out of the norm and feeding back to you on any concerns.

How does Town Close support its pupils’ mental health?

We have a full-time counsellor in school who is also trained in online counselling and she can take referrals from parents, teachers or pupils themselves (all with parental consent). Children generally have six sessions of play-therapy or counselling, after which a review can result in continued support. The counsellor can also refer on to other professionals such as family therapist or psychiatrist. One of the most gentle and effective ways we’ve found to help our children at Town Close is with our Learning Support Dog, Bella, who is in school most days and is a calming, grounding presence when children are anxious or upset – she’s there to meet any children who have separation anxiety in the mornings to help them into school and is also present at our lunchtime drop-in Talk and Share, where children can speak to a member of staff about things that are worrying them, have a cuddle with Bella and feel comforted. More generally we have a Deputy Head (Pastoral) and a system of tutors each responsible for 10 pupils of all ages across the school. Do check with your school what systems are in place to safeguard the children pastorally, there may be more help than you are aware of.

What ways can parents compound rather than help their child’s anxiety?

However well-intentioned, it’s never helpful to suggest that your child should ‘cheer up’ or ‘look on the bright side’. In fact, this can be detrimental because it fails to validate their emotion and leaves them feeling ashamed or confused that they are feeling something their parents seem not to accept. Try to listen and not offer answers. Children are often told what to do and feel by adults and just allowing them to express their own feelings and feel validated can be powerful.

Now that the kids are back in school, should parents be stricter with screen time again?

The best way to deal with screen time conflict is for parents to show positive interest in their children’s internet and social media experiences and discuss the pitfalls on a regular, informal basis. If the lines of communication are always open, even for the smallest things, then children will come to parents with ‘the big stuff’ too. Recent research shows the positive benefits of small amounts of social media and online game playing as it encourages socialisation with peers and gives young people common areas of interest to talk about when they meet.

See the full review of Town Close School here.

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