The importance of caring for children’s mental health

The importance of caring for children’s mental health

The need to care for children’s physical health is well known with a wealth of information available on all aspects of child health, development, and immunization programs. However, it is just as important to care for their mental health. Yet untreated problems with children’s mental health can persist into adulthood while impacting many aspects of their childhood. To ensure a child’s healthy development, caring for mental health is just as important as caring for them physically and provides their best chance of growing into healthy, well-adjusted adults.

Child mental health and COVID-19

2020 was a momentous year as COVID-19 started its spread around the world, resulting in many places with restrictions and lockdowns. With many dying of this new disease, the priority was the physical health of the nation. Measures were put into place to slow the spread of the virus, even though this meant many restrictions and everyday life as we knew it came to an abrupt halt.

Since then, a vaccination has been developed for the virus, and we know much more about how to treat the disease. But the implications for mental health are still ongoing and may be causing problems that we are only just uncovering. This is true in all sections of society and includes children. There is a prevailing belief that children are resilient and will bounce back easily enough. However, this is often not the case with many children suffering.

COVID-19 was a time of fear for many. News reports were full of how many people had died or were dying, and this will have had an impact on children as they worried for their families and friends. And of course, many did die, with children having to cope with bereavement, losing beloved grandparents, and even parents.

When restrictions were announced, this had a significant impact on children. Many did not go to school, switching instead to remote learning. While schools undoubtedly did the best they could in delivering an education, online interactions could not compensate for the lack of physical contact. Children spent long periods unable to see their friends and families or to partake in extra-curricular clubs and activities. Special events like end-of-school proms that young people might have been looking forward to for a long time were canceled, meaning that certain rights of passage were lost forever. Even everyday treats like a trip to the movies or a sporting event became impossible. We are still learning what the impact and effects of this will be on children.

As well as potentially causing mental health problems, this lack of physical interaction has also meant a delay in diagnosing mental health and developmental conditions such as autistic spectrum disorders and ADHD. During that delay, problems may have built up.

For parents, teachers, and mental health professionals, there is now a need to understand the implications of the pandemic on children’s mental health and to find strategies to support them.

Mental health support for children

There are many different types of people who are looking out for the mental health of children. Parents may be the first to realize something is amiss, or it may be the teachers or other school staff that see the early signs. It can also be the children themselves who recognize they need mental health support. It is vital that all these people know where to go to get the professional help the child may require.

Pediatricians and family nurse practitioners may be the first port of call, and they will know the relevant service to refer the child to, such as mental health services or counseling. But another individual who can provide support and can be easily accessed is the school counselor.

The work of the school counselor is incredibly varied. Many of the issues they deal with may seem trivial, but in reality, they are not. What seems like a minor problem such as a poor grade or parental pressure to do better can have a negative impact on the child’s mental well-being that can lead to far greater problems. They may also deal with issues that are major from the outset; it might, for example, be the school counselor who first spots the signs of neuro-divergence such as an autistic spectrum disorder and can alert parents and teachers to find ways to support the student.

School counseling is a career that appeals to those who care about mental health of children. Some enter school counseling as a first career, but it also appeals to teachers and others who work with children who are looking to start a new career. Although there are some similarities to mental health counseling, school counselors have a more academic focus with their aim being to support the student to succeed within the school context.

Qualification and licensure are essential to becoming a school counselor, and qualifications such as a master’s degree can be studied at universities in person or on high-quality online courses. For those wondering how to become a counselor in schools, you can find out more from St. Bonaventure University Online. Their CACREP-accredited Master of Science in Education in School Counseling is perfect for those new to counseling and for those already working in the field. It prepares students effectively for the licensed professional counseling exam.

Forming relationships

Humans are social creatures, and the ability to form healthy relationships is essential even from infancy. With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the usual social interactions, it may be that children will now be experiencing more social problems. Children learn to form relationships with their parents, siblings, and wider family and friends. As they grow, they might attend a daycare setting or start kindergarten or simply attend groups with their parents where they begin to form relationships with children their own age. These relationships will develop throughout their schooling. They also form relationships with other adults such as teachers.

Poor mental health can hinder the development of friendships and other relationships. It might cause behavioral issues that mean their peers are less drawn to them and adults consider them “difficult.” It may even make them withdrawn and lack the confidence to interact with others. Forming social bonds is an essential part of a child’s development, and anything that can hinder that is a problem. It can make childhood a lonely time that will increase the downward spiral of poor mental health. If not redressed, the child will grow into an adult who struggles with social interaction. This can make it harder for them to find partners, and may seriously hamper their career prospects.

Educational progress and activities

Poor mental health can hamper learning, leading to poor academic progress. This can increase a downward spiral of mental health as poor progress such as low grades can further contribute to low self-esteem. The further children drop academically behind, the harder it can be for them to catch up. This may have a long-term impact on their achievements and what they go on to do after school.

Poor mental health can also have an adverse effect on leisure activities. Children may lose interest in sporting or musical achievements or show a lack of enthusiasm for fun activities such as a trip to a beach or a theme park. Extra-curricular activities can contribute to boosting a child’s enjoyment in life, and lack of self-esteem and losing interest in these can lower their mood further and contribute to their becoming even more socially isolated.

Substance abuse

Poor mental health in children may increase the likelihood of their turning to substance abuse such as alcohol and drugs. This in turn can lead to addiction which can have lifelong consequences for both physical and mental health and the ability to function in society. Addiction can be very difficult to escape, requiring long-term medical support with physical effects that may last for the rest of the child’s life. Some substances can also increase other mental symptoms such as anger or even psychotic disorders.

There is also the question of legality with possession of some illegal drugs, perhaps leaving a child with a criminal record. Additionally, addiction is expensive to maintain, and most young people do not have access to the large amounts of money needed to support it. To fund addiction, they may steal from their families or turn to crime. For teenage girls and young women particularly as they get older, it could increase their likelihood of being drawn into prostitution.

While many of these are the worst-case scenario, it does highlight the importance of supporting children’s mental health and acting on problems early on before they escalate into substance abuse.

School refusal

Poor mental health in children may contribute to absences from school. If children are not regularly in education, they will not only fall behind academically but will also lose out socially as their friendship groups move on. Schools are not just places of learning but often also provide a range of extra-curricular activities, including sports teams, bands, orchestras, school newspapers, and math leagues. These can provide a wealth of opportunities for children to expand their interests and acquire new skills, all of which the school-refusers will miss out on.

School refusal will also impact the wider family, causing anxiety about what their child is doing all day. In the case of younger children, there will be issues around who is caring for the child if they are not at school and both parents’ work.

Remote learning became commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, and although the vast majority of children were glad to return to school, online learning did suit some school refusers very well. This in turn may have hidden problems that are only now becoming apparent.

How to support child mental health

Children need unconditional love and acceptance from their families without their worth resting on achievements or grades. Nobody succeeds at everything all the time, and children need to know that it is OK to fail and make mistakes.

Children should set realistic goals in their academic and extracurricular activities and should be praised when they achieve them. But they should also be praised for the effort they put into their activities, even if on a particular occasion they did not meet the goal. Encouragement can go a long way to help children feel supported. On the flip side, avoid negative criticism and sarcasm. Criticism should always be constructive, delivered with the aim of helping the child do well rather than shaming them for their failure.

Childhood should be fun, so make sure there is time for a child to relax and enjoy themselves. Parents often lead busy lives, but it is always a good idea to fit in time for fun activities with your child such as birthday celebrations, family board games, or one-on-one quality time together. Teachers can bring fun into the classroom as well. Gaining knowledge and acquiring new skills should be enjoyable, and this enjoyment will inspire the students to want to find out even more.

Of course, there will be times when discipline is needed. Rules and guidelines can help children feel more secure and so are not negative. However, when we discipline children, we should criticize the behavior, not the child. We should keep our behavioral expectations realistic.

Further steps

Parents should never be afraid to seek help if they fear their child is experiencing poor mental health. Signs to look out for can include a decline in school performance, temper tantrums, nightmares, hyperactivity, school refusal, and anxiety. As previously stated, the more promptly mental health conditions are identified and treated, the better the outcome. Conversely, an undiagnosed condition can lead to a negative spiral and persistent problems.

A good place to seek help is from the school counselor as they will have a wealth of experience in supporting children through a vast range of problems. They will also have seen many students who have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic and coped with it in many ways, giving the counselor expertise in how to deal with the mental health implications. Committed to delivering the best possible outcomes for children’s mental health, counselors are an effective source of support for both children and parents.

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