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Mental health: Give your kids a happiness MOT

Think kids don't have a care in the world? Lockdown has taken its toll and young people are struggling. Here's some practical advice to help when they're not feeling OK.

superhero kids

If you’re a regular Muddy reader you’ll know that I’m a cup half full kinda gal, looking on the bright side of life, but even I can’t sugar coat some subjects. After a year of missed school days, lost play dates and care-free holidays, our kids have suffered. Lockdown is not been normal and the effects of being under house arrest will leave invisible scars.

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week – and as a mum of two boys, aged six and 15, it has never felt more relevant. The average onset age for depression was 45 in the 1960s; today it’s 14, with the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers reporting that kids as young as four are showing signs of mental health problems.

The bad news doesn’t end there, a new study has revealed that 31% of children in the UK are currently suffering with anxiety, stating that they are constantly worried. But even pre-Covid, three children in every classroom have a diagnosed mental illness – anxiety, panic attacks and depression being the most common, according to the charity Young Minds.

Wow. Aren’t you glad you’re not a kid these days? What a relief when we were growing up for no social media, non-pushy parents, only five channels on telly (yes, I’m that old). The pressures of modern childhood are smashing self-esteem and affecting all areas of our little people’s lives.

But how to solve it? St Joseph’s College Reading is taking a proactive stance beefing up the school’s focus on EQ alongside IQ. It is proud to be a Mental Health First Aid Centre, running courses for teachers, parents and anyone working with young people to develop skills to spot problems and respond with knowledge and confidence. 

The thing that really resonated for me, is that if we want out kids to be happy, we need to work on their day-to-day wellbeing. So, I hoping these insights might help .

teen girls hanging out in bedroom with fairy lights photos

Hang with people who matter

Finding your gang is hard – especially when hanging out with your mates is heavily restricted right now. It’s all too easy to say, spend time with people who make you happy. Obviously that’s true, but when you’re young, you want to feel accepted, you don’t want to be different and it’s all about fitting in. Throw in communicating on What’s App and living in a world where popularity is measured by likes and shares, and you see the problem. But close relationships with family and friends provide love, support and increase our feelings of self worth. Outside interests (when we’re allowed to have them) introduce them to new communities that bring a sense of belonging. If someone makes you happy, stick with them – quality over quantity. But as parents also need to practice forging good relations with our kids – and that is definitely tested when your cute littlies grow up to be temperamental teens.

Look after your body

Shift your butt and get in a solid eight hours sleep – it makes you feel more human (note to self). Kids and adults feel happier if they’re more active. We don’t need to run marathons, but anything from walking, cycling or skateboarding to yoga, running or playing team sports will instantly improve mood and can lift us out of a depression. We can also boost wellbeing by unplugging from tech and making sure we get enough sleep! So no phones or iPads at bedtime. I think we’re all well-versed in: Eat well + sleep well + move more = happy. But, I for one, do not always practice what I preach and need to swap my late night Insta binges for a good book; go for a run and stay away from the chips.

Positive strong boy in boxing gloves and a superhero cape

Find ways to bounce back

“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is not just something my mum used to say, science has shown that it does have some truth in it, too. Our kids’ resilience has been tested over the last 12 months, so this is something I really worry about. Life can be hard. We all have times of stress, loss, failure or trauma, but our ability to bounce back is key. Like many other life skills, resilience can be learned, but it does mean, as parents, allowing your kids to actually experience adversity. By doing this, they learn ways of coping and identify and engage their support network. We often cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose our own attitude to what happens. So back off, let your kids make mistakes and give them the space to figure out a fresh approach.

Stop and take notice

Is there more to life than playing games, social media and YouTube videos of cute cats? If you can prize your kids eyes away from a screen, there is! We just need them to stop and take notice. Learning to be more mindful and aware will do wonders for their wellbeing in all areas of life –  take that government-mandated daily walk, eat well and hang out as a family. It helps us get in tune with our feelings and stops us dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, so try and encourage your kids to be present.

Postive message you can dream and you can do

Reach for the stars

Dream big. I wanted to be fighter pilot when I was growing up. It didn’t happen but only because of bad eyesight. The point is, setting goals, both big and small, boosts happiness. They need to be challenging enough to excite us, but also achievable. Happiness doesn’t just happen – it comes from thinking, planning and pursuing things that are important. Encourage your children to set goals – from improving on their next maths test to becoming PM, just make sure you’re not imposing YOUR benchmarks on them. It’ll only end in tears.

Like yourself

See through the Insta filter fakery of likes and comments. No-one’s perfect. Getting teenagers in particular to focus less on their flaws – what we’re not rather than what we’ve got – makes it much harder for them to be comfortable in their own skin. Having constant criticism in their heads about not being good enough is a sure way to be unhappy. Putting imperfections into perspective is really important. So teach your kids to be kind to themselves as well as to others.

Set a good EQ example
Our kids are our world and we prioritise their needs. But when it comes to good mental health and wellbeing, we need to practice what we preach. It’s not good enough to say, “Do as I say not as I do”. We need time out to do the things that make us happy – whether that’s going for a run, reading a book or taking a bath. Be good to yourself even if it is for one hour a week. Children are naturally highly attuned to their parents’ moods. Putting on a brave face will never fully mask what we’re feeling, and these feelings, which our children undoubtedly perceive, are sure to impact them.

Free confidential support can be accessed anytime from government-backed voluntary and community sector organisations by:

  • texting SHOUT to 85258
  • calling Childline on 0800 1111
  • calling The Mix on 0808 808 4994
  • Online information on COVID-19 and mental health is available on Young Minds
  • The Think Ninja app (freely available and adapted for COVID-19) educates 10-18 year olds about mental health, emotional well-being and provide skills young people can use to build resilience and stay well 24/7
  • Barnardo’s See, Hear, Respond service, provides support to children, young people and their families who aren’t currently seeing a social worker or other agency, and who are struggling to cope with the emotional impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19). You can access this via the ‘See, Hear, Respond’ service self-referral webpage or Freephone 0800 151 7015.

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