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How to look after a child with anxiety or depression

8 minutes

Discovering your child has anxiety or depression can be hard for parents, and it can be difficult to know what to do for the best. We explore how to look after a child with anxiety or depression and offers insight from those in the know as to the best things to do.

  • Anxiety and depression can affect anyone, including young children.
  • Talking about mental health is crucial – be open and talk about it with your child
  • Activities such as mindfulness can help calm a child's mind

Looking after a child with anxiety or depression

How common is anxiety and depression in young people?

Having a child diagnosed with anxiety or depression can be a worrying time for parents, and equally scary and frightening for a child.

A report published last year by NHS Digital revealed that one in eight children and young people in England have a mental health problem. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, nearly 300,000 young people in Britain have an anxiety disorder. [1]

Stress and pressures have become more prevalent in children's lives, from the stress of busy schedules and the pressure to perform, to anxieties about social media. 

“One in ten young people experience a mental health problem before the age of 16 years old,” says Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change.

How to spot the signs of anxiety or depression

There are some signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression that children might have. According to NHS Direct, these include:

  • Sadness or a low mood that doesn't get better
  • Not being interested in things they usually enjoy
  • Being irritable and grumpy
  • Tiredness and exhaustion
  • Having trouble sleeping – either more or less than usual
  • Lacking confidence, being unable to face simple challenges and being indecisive
  • Avoiding everyday activities, such as going to school or seeing friends

"It's important to get professional help and support for your child if you think they're struggling with anxiety or depression," advises Becky Goddard-Hill, a psychotherapist, life coach and co-author of Create Your Own Happy, a happiness boosting activity book for kids.

"Talk to your child, talk to their school and talk to their GP. Self-diagnosing is never helpful and you need to get a full picture of what's really going on. Children need to be taken seriously and their feelings heard."

Talking about mental health

One of the big ways that parents can help is by talking about mental health. It sounds easy on the surface, but can be hard if it's not a topic you've talked about before.

“Talking about mental health issues with your child can feel daunting, but being open will pay off. If young people are aware of what mental health problems are, it will help them to understand their own wellbeing,” says Jo from Time to Change.

“You don’t have to be an expert. Just showing that you’re in their corner and open to the topic can make a big difference.”

Talking about mental health to your child doesn’t have to be a formal conversation. In fact, Jo suggests, it can be a lot easier to chat in an informal situation and when you’re doing something side-by-side, rather face-to-face.

For example, you could bring up the topic whilst you’re shopping or playing a game together.

That's a tactic that the charity YoungMinds agrees with and suggests that all parents take 20 minutes a week to talk to their children about how they're feeling whilst doing something they enjoy.

"Starting that conversation about mental health can be really hard," explains Jo Hardy, head of parent services at YoungMinds.

"Whilst many parents do an incredible job supporting their children, it isn't always easy for children to open up and tell their parents if there are problems at school, in their relationships with friends or on social media."

"We suggest that by carving out 20 minutes a week to do an activity which allows you to talk about serious subjects, parents can start those conversations early and stay involved with their child if they're struggling to cope."

The benefits of talking about anxiety and depression

The benefits of talking about mental health is something that Ella Purnell, a 21-year-old actress and ambassador for YoungMinds, is very keen to emphasise.

Ella had her first panic attack at the age of 13 and developed anxiety and depression. "I felt low and down, but thought you could only have 'depression' if something really bad had happened in your life," she explains.

She says she didn't feel comfortable enough to talk about what was going on and kept things hidden until her mum took her out of school one day and asked her to be honest. Her mum was supportive and caring, without being pushy and talking helped her get the help she needed.

Other ways to help your anxious or depressed child

In addition to talking, there are other ways you can help your child to calm their mind and ease worries.

"Gratitude is always a great help in focusing the mind on positivity," suggests Becky. "Spending a few minutes before bed, looking for and expressing gratitude for what has gone well during the day can be so beneficial."

They could record their gratitude in a journal, or write the things they're grateful for on pieces of paper to keep in a jar. It's a positive record to have and look back at on days when they're feeling low. Plus, "it helps strengthen and encourage the brain to be observant of all the good things in life."

Mindfulness – the idea of focussing on the present, not worrying about the past or future – can also be a good activity to do.

"A nature walk is a wonderful way to encourage a child to be mindful, as is photography and crafting of any kind," says Becky. "If a child becomes fully focussed on what they're doing, it will help calm their mind."

So, try and start conversations about anxiety and depression, engage in activities together such as mindfulness and help your child feel able to talk openly about their feelings, with your full support and understanding.

* YoungMinds run a free Parents Helpline – call 0808 802 5544 (Mon-Fri 9.30-16.00)

Sources

[1]  National Centre for Social Research, Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017, NHS Digital, https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2017/2017