How can you support a child facing mental health problems?

15th April 2020 by Eve Johnson


In this article

  • Children’s Mental Health Statistics in the UK

  • Approaching the subject of mental ill health

  • Parental help

  • Support and guidance

  • Children’s mental health services

  • Diagnosis

  • Responding in a crisis

  • Safety plans

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy

  • Advantages –

  • Disadvantages –

  • Play therapy

  • Advantages –

  • Disadvantages –

  • Counselling

  • Advantages –

  • Disadvantages –

  • Medical interventions

  • Medical interventions

  • How can I make sure my knowledge is up to date?


This blog will explore how you can help and support a young child that is struggling with their mental health.

Sadly, a lot of stigma about mental ill health still prevails and so speaking up about a mental health problem is something that can cause significant difficulties for both adults and children. Children in particular may struggle to speak about their mental health because they don’t fully understand what is happening to them or they may be too afraid to speak up if they think that they won’t be believed or that someone will judge them.

It is accepted that speaking up as quickly as possible once a mental health difficulty is suspected is essential in making sure that the problem does not worsen and that the child feels fully supported and therefore able to speak up about what it is that they are feeling.

Children’s Mental Health Statistics in the UK

According to the NHS

  • One in eight 5 – 19-year olds had at least one mental disorder.

  • Young people aged 14-19 who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or with another sexual identity are more likely to have a mental health disorder than those who identify as heterosexual.

  • Girls and young women aged 17-19 are more than twice as likely to have a mental health disorder than boys in the same age group.

  • Boys were found to be more likely to have a mental health disorder than girls until the age of 11.

  • One in 18 women aged 17 to 19 had body dysmorphic disorder.

  • Now more than ever we need to know how we can support out children and their mental health. Mental health problems can affect any child and no one is immune from mental health problems.

Approaching the subject of mental ill health

It is important that children feel they can talk openly about how they feel, here are some tips you can put in place to help children feel comfortable discussing openly about how they feel.

Speaking at an age-appropriate level

Children need to be able to understand what they are being told and asked and they also need to be able to respond in a way that reflects that they have understood. Therefore, when speaking with a child about their mental health or about their feelings in general, it is really important to make sure that they are not asked questions that contain complex terms or jargon or that they are not bombarded with a lot of information or questions all at once, which would undoubtedly be overwhelming for them.

Enabling children to express themselves

Asking open questions such as those that start with “how do you feel about…” will give children a better opportunity to speak about how they are feeling than asking questions that are closed and can only be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Actively listening

Children need to know that the person to whom they are speaking is listening to them properly and this means that adults should speak to them in an area where there are no distractions and where they can show the child that they have understood what they are saying by asking pertinent questions and paraphrasing what has been said.

Not reacting negatively

Arguably, the worst thing that a parent can do in response to a child disclosing a mental health difficulty is to react in a way that shows shock, fear or acute distress, even if they may be feeling all of these things. If the child feels as though they are upsetting a parent, this would almost certainly mean that they would stop speaking or dismiss the true level of how they are feeling, both at the time and in the future as well.

Having a third person intervene

Some children may not want to speak to a parent but may be happy to speak to someone else about their feelings. In this instance, this may mean speaking to an informal individual, such as a teacher or family friend, or a more formal individual such as a counsellor, any of whom may be able to help the child discuss their feelings and then pass this back to the parent, if the child is happy for them to do this.

Letting children know that they are supported

Ultimately, speaking about a mental health difficulty is not easy and children must know that they have done the right thing by discussing what is troubling them with someone else. Parents should let the child know that they are fully supported, that they are not in trouble for how they feel and, if appropriate, that they will help the child to get any help that they need.

Parental help

The diagnosis or suspicion of a mental health problem for a child can be a distressing time for parents who may not have any previous experience of mental ill health and who may not know what to do for the best. Parents therefore must be supported otherwise they too become susceptible to their own mental health difficulties that can be brought on from the stress that comes from trying to support someone who is mentally unwell.

If a child has a diagnosis of a mental health problem and the parent is acting in the role of career, they become entitled to a carers’ assessment in line with the Care Act 2014, where their own needs are identified and fulfilled so that they are fully able to carry out their caring responsibilities.

Less formally, parents would likely benefit from reading up as much as they can about their child’s condition so that it is less frightening to them and they are better equipped to help the child manage the symptoms that it brings at the time and in the future as well.

A lot of parents try to blame themselves for their child’s mental health problem and the guilt that comes about from this can cause considerable distress and guilt to them. Parents should therefore use their support networks where they can, which may mean speaking to friends, relatives or colleagues about how they are feeling and the kind of support that they need to manage how they are feeling.

Another key element of helping parents to be supported when their child is mentally unwell is making sure that they know that their child will not recover from a mental health problem overnight and that this may take some time even to see a small improvement. Parents who expect their child to be back to normal within a few days may then experience the disappointment that this brings as well as additional worry that their child is not responding and will therefore never be well again.

The job description and the person specification should go hand-in-hand because one informs the other. The job description enables potential candidates to know more about the role and the person specification enables them to see if they fit the role’s requirements.

The specification, like the job description should be as clear and concise as possible so that it is clear to potential candidates exactly what skills, qualities and qualifications the organisation is looking for. In certain areas, the language used by organisation varies but means the same thing, for example the NHS refers to ‘values’ required by candidates whereas this is referred to as ‘behaviours’ by the Civil Service.

The person specification should include information about attributes that potential candidates must have that are either essential or desirable, which help candidates to consider if they should apply and can be useful to the organisation when they are comparing applicants.

Organisations may find it useful to use the following headings when writing a person specification:

Skills and abilities

  • Those skills which candidates must be able to demonstrate.

  • Skills may be technical, organisational, creative or communicative or a mixture of these.

  • How skills apply to specific parts of the job description.

Qualifications and experience

  • What specific education or course background is needed?

  • What level of experience is needed?

  • Does the candidate need to have had a similar role in the past?

  • How much experience in a similar role is needed?

Character and personal qualities

  • What kind of personalities will fit into the role and the organisation?

  • What kind of traits should candidates refer to in their application?

Ideal qualities and attributes

  • What other qualities would the organisation like the candidate to have?

  • What has the candidate achieved? For example, do they volunteer or have a special role in their local community?

Did you know? According to Young Minds 3 children in every classroom have a mental health problem

Support and guidance

If parents feel as though they need a more formal level of support, they should contact any of the following who will be able to offer them guidance and support:

  • GP

  • Counsellor

  • Their child’s mental health professional, e.g. someone who works for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)

  • Charities such as Mind or Young Minds.

Children’s mental health services