Most adults think of their childhood as the happiest time of their life. But we forget too quickly that being a child – even as young as 1 – can be stressful.
Pressure and stress, of course, can have a direct effect on mood, which may explain why many experts believe it can lead to depression. So, is it any surprise that studies show almost 1 in 4 young people will experience depression before they’re 19 years old? Unfortunately, growing numbers of young people are harming themselves as a way of coping with feelings of depression and anxiety. In fact, a study from Young Minds found that self-harm among young women and girls is rising at an ‘alarming rate’.
From peer pressure to academic expectations, there are many aspects of modern life that can lead a child or teenager to feel stressed, anxious and worried. Here, our experts outline some of the common triggers and offer their tips on how to support a child who is experiencing stress or depression.
- School and homework
Many children feel under pressure to do well at school. For some, the lessons they have to learn during the day – plus the homework they have to do in the evening – can seem overwhelming, and if a child falls behind this can lead to stress. It can often mean they don’t have enough free time to play and blow off steam.
Exams can put children and teenagers under increasing pressure, so much so that a recent report by Childline revealed the service delivered more than 2,795 counselling sessions on exam stress between 2018 - 2019, with a third of these helped in April and May alone.
In the report, ChildLine cites the top concerns for children are not wanting to disappoint their parents, excessive workloads and trying their best but still failing. It was also revealed that young people said worrying about taking exams was negatively affecting their mental health, causing some to self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts.
- Making friends & peer pressure
When children start a new school, making friends can put them under pressure. Those who don’t make friends easily are likely to feel isolated. Children can also worry when they argue and fall out with their friends. Many children feel under pressure to fit in, and sometimes this means they do things they may not feel comfortable with or are unsure of.
In ChildLine’s annual review, it was revealed that bullying was the most common reason for young people to use their services for children aged 11 and under.
As a parent, there are certain things you can look out for that may suggest your child is having a problem with bullying. These include:
- Becoming withdrawn, nervous and losing confidence
- Performing badly at school
- Not wanting to go to school (for instance, pretending to be ill)
- Losing personal belongings (or personal belongings becoming damaged)
- Not eating or sleeping well
- Having unexplained injuries such as bruises
- World events
It’s impossible to keep disturbing news about things like war, natural disasters and terrorist attacks from children these days. As a result, some children may worry about their safety as well as that of their parents, family members and friends.
- Family difficulties or changes
From moving to a new house to parents separating, family difficulties and changes to the norm can be tough on a child or teenager and can cause stress.
How you can help
If you suspect your child is under a lot of stress and pressure and may be suffering, here are some of the things you can do to help:
- Make time for them
All parents are busy these days, but it’s important to spend more time than usual with your children if you think they’re worried about something. Making yourself available for fun activities or just being in the same room as them. Ask them about their day and show an interest in things that are important to them. But try to avoid forcing them to talk about their worries – they’ll open up when they feel comfortable talking about it.
- Encourage healthy sleep
Getting the right amount of sleep and rest can help children become more resilient to stress. Children need different amounts of sleep at different ages – find out how many hours your children need by visiting NHS Choices.
- Feed them healthy food
Good nutrition is also essential if you want to boost your child’s coping skills. Try to make sure they’re eating at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. If your children are resistant to eating fruit and veg, there are lots of ways to get them into their diet (these tips by NHS Choices may help).
- Make stress normal
It may be useful to remind your children that some level of stress is perfectly normal in life, and that everyone is affected by it and has to find ways of coping. Explaining that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling could give them the confidence they need to manage their stress levels. If it helps, try talking about times when you’ve been stressed, and explain how you tackled it.
- Keep them active
Physical activity can help children and adults alike manage stress, so make sure your children are getting plenty of exercise. Other things you could try with them include relaxation techniques and even things like breathing exercises. Try leading by example – if you use these methods to manage your own stress levels, your children are more likely to follow in your footsteps.
Meanwhile, if you think your child may be depressed, don’t try to handle it on your own – make an appointment for them to see their GP. Your child’s doctor can refer them to your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) for specialist help. These services can provide access to a team of experts, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, support workers, occupational therapists and psychological therapists.