Children as young as six are suffering from stress. Claire Spreadbury talks to Dr Preethi Daniel about the warning signs, and how you can help.
It’s all too easy for families to get caught up in the Ferris wheel of life. And it’s not just the adults who are struggling to keep up. If you Google ‘depression in children’, the NHS will tell you that one in four young people will experience seriously low moods before the age of 19. So, what should we be doing about it?
“As a parent, it’s your natural instinct to protect and care for your child,” says Dr Preethi Daniel, Clinical Director at the London Doctors Clinic. “If they scrape their knee, you’ll put a plaster on it, and if they have a fever, you’ll visit a doctor for medicine.”
When the issue is physical, she says, it’s far easier to identify and treat, but when it comes to mental health, it’s often difficult to know what to do.
“Mental health issues can be debilitating and have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. If someone is struggling with depression or another mental health issue, and it’s left untreated, the issue could affect development and have significant long-term effects,” she says.
Common mental health triggers, particularly for children at school, include the stress of homework and exams, bullying and – if they’re using social media – external pressures to look and act a certain way.
What are the warning signs?
There are some general signs that parents and guardians can look out for, which may indicate your child is struggling with their mental health, says Daniel. Having trouble sleeping is a key issue, as is struggling at school, isolating themselves and avoiding friends or family, having frequent mood swings or emotional outbursts, becoming obsessed with or completely neglecting their appearance, and having disturbed eating habits – so eating far more or less than normal.
“Research suggests that nearly a quarter of young people will experience depression before the age of 19,” notes Daniel. “Common symptoms include a constant low mood, being irritable or grumpy, not caring about things they used to enjoy, and having low energy.”
“The feelings of anxiety and worry do not discriminate, and we all may experience this at points in our lives, for example, starting a new school or around exam season,” she says. “However, if your child is constantly anxious with seemingly no triggers, and it’s affecting their day-to-day life, you should seek medical attention.
“The symptoms to look out for include struggling to fall asleep, getting angry quickly, constant nerves or worry, finding it hard to focus, or not eating properly. Other less obvious signs are if they become clingy, have stomach pain, are feeling constantly unwell or are tense, fidgety and make frequent toilet trips.”
Compulsive exercising or obsessive thoughts about food
There are many triggers that can cause an eating disorder, whether it’s external pressures to look a certain way, or the consequence of another mental health issue. “An eating disorder can have a significant negative impact on various aspects of a person’s wellbeing, so it is important to tackle it early,” says Daniel. “Symptoms include unusual food habits, weight fluctuations, compulsive exercising and obsessive thoughts about food.”
“ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which can affect your child’s attention, ability to sit still and self-control,” she continues. “Signs include being self-focused, having trouble staying still or playing quietly, interrupting others when they are talking, lacking focus and making frequent mistakes. Another sign is that your child will daydream a lot and is less involved in activities than other children.”
What can parents do about it?
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental wellbeing, the first step should be to talk to them about it; ask what it is that’s affecting them and why. Daniel recommends taking whatever is causing the issue seriously, as what may seem small to you could be a huge deal for your child.
“Try to understand the issue and not minimise what they’re saying or tell them it is not worth worrying about,” she says, “as this could make your child feel worse.”
Not all children want to talk about their worries however, and parents need to respect this. Instead, Daniel suggests letting them know you’re concerned, and that you’re there for them if they need you – and when they’re ready to talk. You could also encourage them to speak to someone else they trust – a teacher, perhaps, or a friend or other family member.
Should you seek medical help?
“Mental health issues can develop and worsen over time, if they’re not treated or cared for properly,” says Daniel. “If you’re concerned that your child is experiencing any symptoms, or you think they might have a mental health issue, book an appointment with your GP. A doctor will be able to assess the condition and determine the best course of action.”