The mental health of young people has become a troubling subject for parents and carers over the last decade. Emotional disorders are on the rise and one in every eight 5 – 19-year olds have a diagnosis of at least one mental disorder.
Many feel the blame lies with the increased pressures placed upon young people by adults, hoping to ensure their success in a competitive world. The numerous restrictions we place to protect their safety, has resulted in less freedom to roam, play physically and establish their independence. Computer games and social media sites have largely taken the place of playing with friends; last year the World Health Organisation classified gaming addiction as a medical disorder and this year see’s the opening of the first centre in the UK dedicated to treating children with gaming addictions.
Although an unfamiliar landscape for those of us who grew up in the preinternet era, it is one that we’re going to need to negotiate and adapt to rapidly if we are to meet the needs of future generations.
Stress and Brain Science
There are many reasons why children may be stressed. Obvious ones include difficulties at home with hostility between parents – marriage breakdown, and exam pressures or bullying at school. More subtle difficulties may be harder to spot. Lack of a secure friendship group can give rise to feelings of isolation or inadequacy that children may be ashamed to admit.
Negative relationships with siblings can have an insidious effect on a child’s self-esteem yet can be overlooked because the destructive patterns develop gradually over time.
Managing stress is key in fostering positive mental health; chronic stress has some very un-welcome effects on the brain. Research has shown that in a stressed state the electrical signals in the brain that form factual memories weaken, while those in areas of the brain associated with emotion, strengthen.
If this pattern is repeated regularly we end up with a brain that over-reacts to emotions and is more likely to discount reasoning. If this isn’t enough of a recipe for parent/child disaster, the disrupted regulation of synapses can result in loss of sociability, avoidance of interaction with others and impairment of memory and learning.
Not all stress comes from the mind!
Results of a survey of over 1,100 10 – 15-year olds carried out by Place2Be found that children and young people who regularly get less than the recommended 9 hours sleep on a school night are:
- More likely to feel that worries get in the way of school work
- Are less able to cope with worries
- Once they start worrying cannot stop
Our bodies and minds are very closely linked. Simple things that can be done to improve physical wellbeing – like eating well, sleeping well and being active can also help mental wellbeing.
So, should all stress be avoided at all costs? Let children stay well within their comfort zones for fear of triggering a stress response? Fortunately, not. We all need some stress in our lives to grow and thrive. Good stress, that which helps us perform well in the face of a challenge, helps to wire the brain in a positive way, leading to greater resilience. The trick is to keep framing challenges as positive and not overwhelm a child by pushing and overburdening.
1. Talking about it. If you can get your child to open up and talk to you then there’s someone they can come to for help. You may not always be able to solve their problems for them (in fact it’s important for them to solve them themselves) but you can provide perspective and the awareness that they’re not in it alone. However, this is sometimes easier said than done.
The easiest way is to start young, but it’s never too late. Tap in regularly to your child’s thoughts and feelings; make it a habit to ask about your child’s day and how they are feeling; or just show you are interested. Find a time that works for you both – it’s essential that you’re both feeling relaxed. For the parent this needs to be a time when you don’t have time pressures or other concerns on your mind. For the child, it needs to feel like a safe comfortable space for the two of you to spend time together – this may be snuggled up in bed at the end of the day or involved in a leisure activity that you both enjoy. Whether it’s walking the dog, drying the dishes or driving back from school, it is regularity that counts! Not all children open up easily so don’t make it a chore or put pressure on them. Here it may take a little time and persistence for them to trust the space, just enjoy a little quiet time together gradually and gently encouraging some feedback about their feelings.
For older children who are worriers the ‘worry tree’ can be a useful tool. Show them how simple it is to use, to help them distinguish between positive worrying – or problem solving – and worries that are outside of their control and therefore not worth their anxiety.
2. Limits on computer time. This may not be a popular one to instil initially, but it’s well worth the effort once everyone accepts the terms. Give your child the time to get bored – it opens up creativity, allows the mind to process the events of the day and encourages ‘real world’ social interactions. On screen socialisation doesn’t build an understanding of the subtleties of body language and how to deal with confrontation in a constructive way.
‘Family link’ is a Google app designed to help monitor and control how much time is spent on mobile phones/devices, be it your own (it’s always best to lead by example) or your child’s.
3. Herbs. Some children have naturally higher anxiety levels and are prone to worrying or agitation. Gentle herbs can be used regularly to help manage their stress and sooth the nervous system, allowing them to relax. Chamomile tea can be safely used regularly for nervous children, try sweetening with a little honey to help them adjust to the unfamiliar taste. Tincture of Californian poppy is also very effective for calming anxiety, it has been used for generalised anxiety disorder1 and is a popular children’s remedy. Lavender essential oil can be used diluted in a little carrier oil (such as sesame oil) and applied to the wrists from a roller ball dispenser when needed.
4. Mindfulness exercises. It is thought that mindfulness and meditation practice, reduces emotional reactivity by encouraging the growth of the prefrontal cortex2. This part of the brain has a number of functions including focussing the attention, impulse control and future planning. Repeating mindfulness exercises throughout the day encourages the brain to switch into a mindful mode without trying; this leads to increased self-awareness and problems can be dealt with before they build up into a big issue.
For a child-friendly mindful breathing exercise, please refer to the mid November article on our website.
5. Diet modifications. Fats are a fundamental building block for the brain. Essential for neuro-logical development and brain functioning; for optimum mental health children need nourishing fats in their diet. Good fats come from a variety of sources including cold pressed olive oil, coconut oil, seeds, nuts, eggs, avocados, grass fed meat and butter. Both saturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are beneficial for children (though polyunsaturated fats should be cold pressed and unheated). One of the richest sources of saturated fats in nature is human breast milk.
RED FLAGS: How to know when your child needs your help.
Always compare your child’s behaviour to their usual behaviour (at a time when they are happy and relaxed), do not compare with other children!
- Unusually quiet and non-communicative at home
- Angry outbursts
- Unusually socially reclusive
- Lack of interest in activities or lack of appetite
- Regular ‘belly ache’ or minor illnesses that result in time off school
More than half of children and young people say they worry “all the time” about at least one thing related to school life, home life or themselves.
- Hanus M et al. Double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a fixed combination containing two plant extracts (Crataegus oxyacantha and Eschscholtzia californica) and magnesium in mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders. Curr Med Res Opin. 2004 Jan;20(1):63-71.
- Sara W. Lazar et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28; 16(17): 1893–1897.
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