Mental health problems in kids: 3 things parents can do to help prevent them

mental health in kids is on the rise

I thought we had enough to do bringing up our kids – you know, loving them, feeding them, clothing, paying them – oh no, that’s just my son’s wishful thinking!

But apparently we may need to do more.

Psychologists have estimated that three children in every classroom have mental health problems, and are suggesting that parents should be given training to deal with these issues in order to keep NHS waiting lists down, or avoid the cost of private intervention.

Mmmm, good idea or not?

When this story broke on the BBC’s Breakfast news last Friday, a furore exploded in response on their Facebook page: Are parents the right people to try and help their own kids? Are they not too close to the problem? Aren’t schools, the government and the NHS all trying to avoid their obligations, and lay both the blame and responsibility for the cure at parents’ doors? The heart-breaking stories of some parents who have tried, against the odds, to get the help they need from medical specialists left me distressed. The glib replies from others, who say it’s all the parents’ fault in the first place, left me very angry. (If you’re interested in taking a look at the complex and heated arguments that came out of this discussion, I’ve attempted to summarise them in mental health issues.pdf.) (See a clip from the Breakfast show’s discussion – parents should deal with their kids’ mental health )

Mental Health issues are on the rise

The fact is mental health problems amongst children are increasing. Now approximately 3% of children and 12% of teenagers suffer from depression.  At least 15 teenagers out of every 100 who suffer from it will go on to develop bipolar disorder. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death in young people aged between 14 and 25 years of age.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

The point is, these figures demonstrate that something needs to be done. There is a very real problem, but even trying to pin down where that problem starts is a tortuous task. So many elements combine and twist together to produce this mess, from government policy that makes schools focus so much on academic achievement rather than holistic education, to the lack of training in mental health issues that teachers are given; from the need for further medical research into the chemistry of depression, autism, ADHD and so on, to the need for better family support systems.

There’s no way I can fight my way through all that and champion one cause over another.

I’m only a mum. I’m no big game-changer who can wrestle with the powers that be and force them to sort out the whole jolly mess from top to bottom.

Some people are.

But I’m afraid it’s not me.

So what can I do?

What can you do?

Well, research shows that the most important factor that can help protect teens from suicide is contact with one caring adult. So our knowledge doesn’t have to match that of the specialists. We can, perhaps, leave them to be the best at what they do – but we can learn enough to infuse our everyday love and care with some simple but wise actions. While writing my recent book I discovered ten things that we can do to help our kids become more resilient, and hopefully, therefore, more able to tackle the feeling of failure that is so often the breeding ground for mental health problems. Here are three of them.

  1. Spend time with your kids. 

Hang out with them and actively listen to what they say both with your ears and your eyes.  Kids aren’t always good at explaining what they feel at the best of times, but since most of our communication is expressed through our body language anyway, we need to listen with our eyes.  Notice the hunched shoulders, folded arms or the hands clasped round the knees when your child is feeling sad or afraid.  Watch the tapping feet or fiddling fingers that tell you they’re nervous or frustrated.  So, put down the iron, leave the laptop on the table and just be with your kids.  Sit with them or join them in their activity. This will help them to feel valued.  What if you were the only person in their day that validated them?

Now, if they are reeling from a recent failure, you have the time to discuss why things didn’t quite go according to plan.

  1. Read, repeat and inwardly digest: there is no failure, only feedback. 

Let this really sink in because it applies as much to you as it does to your children.  All our failures and mistakes are simply telling us how not to do something; we just need to work out what to do differently on our next attempt.  Ask your child what or how he would change next time round.

  1. Empathise.  

Let them know that you really understand how disappointed or frustrated they feel.  Often we so desperately want to fix things for them, to be the time-travelling hero who puts it all right again.  But even if that were possible it would be giving them a very unreal picture of the world.  What they need to hear is that we understand.  We can’t always take the pain or discomfort away, but by supporting them they can come to realise for themselves that failure is not the end of everything, and it doesn’t need to cut them adrift emotionally to face their feelings alone.  We want our kids to develop into robust independent adults who acknowledge their emotions yet are not overwhelmed by them, so let’s help them do that.

If you’d like to read the full list visit my website and download the report in the Resources area entitled, ‘Ten Tools to Turn Failure into Your Best Weapon’.

What else do you think we could do? Leave a comment in the box below – it could turn into a little pool of resources. I really value your thoughts.




Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

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