Category

Mental health

A guide to spotting loneliness in children

By | children's health, Education, family, Health, Mental health, Relationships | No Comments
by Karen Dolva
CEO and co-founder of
No Isolation

Loneliness, like many psychological distresses, is difficult to spot. Recently, it has been extremely present in the national news and has been labelled an epidemic. The fact that loneliness has been increasing as a topic of discussion is very important, as one of the biggest issues is the taboo that surrounds it.

Loneliness is difficult to describe and verbalise, and children especially can struggle with this. They may understand that something is wrong, but not grasp how to verbalise their feelings, or even if they should. Spotting ‘symptoms’ of loneliness is difficult, as loneliness is a very subjective feeling. It is not possible to give a ‘one size fits all’ diagnosis. To give one could mean that some lonely children are overlooked, or children experiencing depression or anxiety are misdiagnosed.

Parents may often sense that something is wrong, but spotting and understanding the exact trigger can be difficult. Having spent the last two years researching and trying to fully comprehend the depth of the problem, I share below my best suggestions to spotting loneliness in children:

Normalise loneliness
For adults, loneliness is a stigma, which means that often we are not open enough about it with each other, let alone with our children. Creating a taboo around loneliness makes it a subject people can be very self-conscious or shy about.

As a consequence of this taboo, many people are not educated on what loneliness actually is, or what it feels like. In the British news, several people in different newspaper articles admit that they either did not recognise the feeling of loneliness or did not understand that they were lonely. They thought it was something typically experienced by older people, and that they were too young.

In truth, loneliness is a normal, but also very subjective, feeling. Typically, when simplified, the feeling is best described as a discrepancy between desired and actual social contact. Loneliness does not discriminate on age or borders, and at some point in life we all experience it. Big changes in our lives make us particularly vulnerable. Despite loneliness being something many experience, the magnitude varies from person to person.
To understand this, we have to start making loneliness a topic that we feel comfortable discussing.

Big changes make children vulnerable
As children grow older, they become more aware of big changes, and are more acutely aware of the impact that these changes can, and do, have on their environment.

This shift makes them more vulnerable to feeling lonely. This is especially common in children moving from primary to secondary school, or to a different city or country as they experience changes in their environment, their routines and their peer groups. Because this, to an adult, is ‘normal’, it can mean that those suffering from chronic loneliness and isolation during this period of childhood can be overlooked.

When talking with Dr Gerine Lodder, who researches loneliness amongst young people, she shared that “80% of parents underestimate or overestimate the level of loneliness of their child”. This could be for a number of reasons, and could include overlooking a chronically lonely child, or assuming loneliness and social isolation when the problem is quite different. To avoid this, parents should be open with their children about what these changes might mean for them, and receptive to their concerns, apprehensions or fears.

What to do when loneliness has been spotted?
Parents have the role of spotting loneliness, and discussing it
with their child. However, some cases of loneliness and social isolation are chronic, and once this is identified further help should be sought.

3-10% of children experience chronic loneliness, that cannot simply be cured by meeting new people, and may need the help of a professional. It is important that parents try to understand if the feeling is from internal or external factors, if it is new and if it is solvable. That way they can start to work on a solution.

Social isolation can be obvious in some circumstances, for example a child who has no friends or social contact and struggles to fit into their environment. Yet, as mentioned above, many can feel lonely without recognising the emotion or without actually being socially isolated.

My best tip: To spot if your child is lonely, you need to explain the emotion and normalise it. Distinguish the difference between this and other emotions, and figure out the magnitude of your child’s experience. The stigma around loneliness needs to be broken. If children learn that being lonely is a failure by them socially, then they are less likely to admit it is something they are feeling.

Being lonely is a very normal feeling that we all experience from time to time, and opening up the discussion around loneliness will help children verbalise their feeling and, in turn, allow parents to give them the help that they need.

(www.noisolation.com) an Oslo-based start-up founded in 2015, with the goal of reducing involuntary social solitude.

Dealing with our children’s stress

By | children's health, Health, Mental health, Uncategorized | No Comments
by Antonia Beary
Headmistress, Mayfield School

Every other news headline seems to be telling us that our children are stressed and miserable. How can this be when, arguably, there has never been a better time to be alive (at least in the First World)? Our standard of living is higher than ever: what used to be considered luxuries like central heating or television, are now basic necessities. There are many exciting opportunities available for all of us to travel, learn and communicate. But perhaps too much choice is not always a good thing. Perhaps, in working so hard to offer our children the things that we didn’t have, in making things easier for them, we are actually depriving them of more formative experiences.

Now don’t misunderstand me. Undoubtedly there is an ever-increasing range of pressures on young people. Clearly there is pressure to perform in school from an early age and testing is taking an increasingly high profile in a young person’s life. 11+ exams have much to answer for in this respect. They face unrealistically and consistently high expectations of academic achievement, with consequential loss of all sense of perspective. This is exacerbated by relentless, unfiltered exposure to social media and explicit advertising, not to mention – albeit more insidiously – the implicit assumption that any view, and increasingly all choices, are equally valid; resulting in an inevitable undermining or at least confusion over moral values. How can we help them?

Well, don’t expect them to be perfect. Certainly don’t wrap them in cotton wool and try to solve all their problems for them, although conversely don’t entirely cast them off to fend for themselves. Taking responsibility is difficult enough for adults, let alone children, so allowing boys and girls to make potentially life-changing decisions for themselves can be immensely stressful. As parents, our job is to guide and to step in to make those difficult decisions, while teenage brains (let alone their hormones) are in a state of flux. We are able to see the bigger picture. Sometimes we have to be unpopular, but this setting of boundaries is a crucial part of being a parent. While there may be some similarities, the role of parent is far more important than the role of friend.

It’s a difficult line to walk and one that all parents have to accept that they won’t always navigate as effectively as they might hope! Individuals have to make their own mistakes, but they need to be well supported by appropriate pastoral care and firm boundaries. In this respect it is key that schools and parents work together and league tables don’t give you any indication of how well this is done! At our school, we encourage our girls to be independent and to be aspirational, albeit to expect to achieve their goals through hard work. However, managing expectations is important. Mistakes are a vital part of their journey. You can’t always do your best (if you could, it would just become average). Sometimes being just good enough will get you through.

Retaining a sense of perspective is key. A certain amount of stress is normal and, dare I say it, healthy. While undoubtedly the number of individuals coping with mental illness is growing, now that we have a generation which is increasingly confident in talking about mental health issues, the term is being used increasingly loosely. What does “issues with mental health”mean? We are told that most teenage girls are miserable most of the time. That’s certainly not what I see on a daily basis.

We need to realise that not every emotional issue is a threat to mental health. Young people, in particular, get stressed and have periods when they feel low; when they feel overwhelmed by everything from the pressure of school work (yes, A Levels are harder than GCSEs, and rightly so), to the state of the world we live in. Feeling emotional does not mean necessarily that you are struggling with mental health issues – it suggests you are a normal human being in a difficult world. Each individual’s malaise will a take different form. This too is normal: we are not all the same. In fact it’s quite important that children learn how to deal with pressure and manage situations not working out quite as they (or you as parents) might have hoped. What is important is that they develop strategies to cope and do not always feel they have to manage on their own: teachers, family and friends are there to support and help them discern a way through.

This is not to say that individuals don’t suffer serious mental health issues: clinical depression is a serious medical condition which needs to be supported professionally. But we need to have a sense of proportion. There is a difference between bruising your knee and amputation – one is irreparable, but a bruise (much as it may hurt at the time) is part of everyday life. In fact, I would go so far as to say that cuts and bruises cannot be avoided if you are living life to the full and being fully human. We don’t want our young people to be reckless, but we do need them to be able to take risks and even get bored occasionally. Being creative means that they will get things wrong and this can be stressful, but it is not life-threatening. If necessity is the mother of invention, fewer choices and less sense of entitlement might just be the best way to help your children achieve the success they deserve.

Antonia Beary is Headmistress at Mayfield School, a leading Catholic independent boarding and dayschool for girls aged 11 to 18.
She is also currently Chair of CISCand Hon Treasurer of GSA.

Are children being over-protected in the digital age?

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Heavy-handed approaches to issues around social media and digital communication such as ‘sexting’, may be damaging to children’s emotional development, according to research on childhood in the digital age, by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and Plymouth University.

 

 

The researchers interviewed children who told them most of their online activities were relatively harmless. The children said they were aware of explicit images being passed around but had rarely been personally involved – however, parents and teachers were often unnecessarily anxious.

Some children described how their parents would monitor their phones and emails, doing regular spot-checks or even receiving copies of all their texts or online messages. In some cases, the youngsters were even tracked using GPS. Teachers, too, would examine the contents of pupils’ phones.

“There is a serious risk that the next generation of our society develops in a way that makes them think they have no right to privacy,” said Dr Leaton-Gray and Professor Phippen in their book ‘Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood’.

The researchers argue such heavy-handed approaches can often be counterproductive, and that teenagers who do transgress online are behaving rather like those who, in the past, might have made rude gestures from the back seat of a school coach on the motorway.

Dr Leaton-Gray said: “Something that was a 10 second thing on the school bus now becomes a permanent feature of your life. We need to be a bit more laid back about the fact that it’s happening, and spend more time and energy on educating children about their privacy rights instead. To put it simply, it’s almost always
wrong to pass on images and personal data without permission, and victim blaming is not the answer.”

Punitive approaches can be unnecessary and even damaging. For example, the response to incidents of ‘sexting’ has often been to threaten to involve the police. This contradicts police guidance, which suggests those who send offensive ‘sexts’ rarely pose an ongoing threat, and that prosecution is therefore not usually the best approach. The authors argue that laws, which were designed to protect vulnerable young people from abusive adults, are actually being used against them.

Similarly, schools have often misused the Data Protection Act in defence of decisions not to allow parents to take photographs events such as plays – which are not covered by the Act – while breaching it themselves by using pupil photographs without explicit consent in their own prospectuses and on their own websites.

The authors say that schools need to face the demands of living in a digital world and that we need policy, practice and national coordination, which acknowledge, rather than shies away from, the challenges that arise from growing up in the 21st century.

Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood’ by Sandra Leaton-Gray and Andy Phippen is published by UCL IOE Press.

Understanding childhood and separation anxiety as a parent

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by Stacey Turner
author of I’m Going To Nursery

As a professional I have helped many children to overcome separation fears and settle at nursery and during the early years of primary school. It’s much more common than people think, and even in those children who don’t usually suffer; all children have the wobbles at some time! I have undertaken a lot of research and I’ve been through an extreme situation of separation anxiety that was borderline separation anxiety disorder, experiencing first-hand what it is like with my eldest daughter. Having experienced the situation on both sides, as a parent and a teacher, I can offer you the reassurance that we can support our little ones through this difficult time.
I can promise you, it’s not naughty behaviour! Anxiety is an emotion. It’s anxious thoughts creeping in – usually in the expectation that something bad is going to happen – and the anxiety takes over. They manifest in how your child’s body reacts to these anxious thoughts in a fight or flight way. While every child and family are different, the basic patterns of anxious thinking, physical and behavioural symptoms appear in a similar way.

The crux of it is, we want to alleviate and overcome anxiety. It’s not only traumatic for the child, it is for the parent/s and can be for the whole family. It’s like a domino effect that impacts people along a chain, as the family group tries to handle the distress. If we don’t try and overcome anxiety, it can end up having greater effects on children and their families as they get older.

How do we tackle anxiety and stop it becoming all encompassing or a problem in the future?
• By acknowledging this emotion and working to break the thought pattern and/or learning to manage thoughts.
• By offering lots and lots of reassurance and showing our little ones that it’s okay to feel this way, but it doesn’t have to be like this!
• By facing fears and becoming ‘brave’, we teach our children confidence, resilience and to be problem solvers, which is an incredible achievement.

What is separation anxiety?
Anxiety is provoked in a young child by separation, or the threat of separation, from the child’s mother, father, or primary carer. Separation anxiety is often a normal stage of childhood development from approximately eight months (sometimes younger, as was our case for little Molly) to five years, sometimes older. It can reappear at times of change
and stress.

Separation anxiety disorder:
Children with separation anxiety disorder feel constantly worried or fearful about separation. You may be dealing with a child who is constantly refusing to be separated from you, displaying panicked reactions and complaining of physical symptoms that can’t
be soothed.

How do I know if my child has anxiety issues?
Crying, screaming, shouting, throwing a tantrum and clinging to the main carer are healthy and normal reactions and vary in length and intensity between each child. You can ease your child’s separation anxiety by staying patient and consistent, and by gently but firmly setting limits. With the right support, children can usually overcome separation in time. Each child is different and this needs to be taken into consideration.

If your child has separation anxiety they may:
• Be very clingy.
• Retreat to a corner or hide under furniture.
• Have difficulty settling back to a calm state.
• Be reluctant to go to sleep. When a child closes their eyes, you disappear and this can stimulate nightmares, sometimes they are very scary.
• Wetting or soiling the bed.
• Experience lots of toileting accidents.
• Refuse to go to nursery, preschool or school, even if your child likes it there usually and enjoys being with their friends.
• Complain of physical sickness such as a headache or stomach ache just before/at the time of separation.

• Fear something will happen to a loved one.
• Worry that they may be permanently separated from you.
• Have little appetite or pick at and complain about food.

If your child’s separation anxiety seems to appear overnight, there is the possibility it could stem from a traumatic experience and is not separation anxiety. The symptoms may appear the same, but are treated differently.

According to the website
www.mentalhealth.org.uk, anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 3.3% of children and young adults in the UK. Other websites indicate this percentage to be higher.

To stop anxiety manifesting, it is important we face and overcome it together.

Stacey Turner, is a mum, teacher and author of ‘I’m Going To Nursery’ and other books in the My Tiny Book series.
For further information go to
www.mytinybook.com.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

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A way of life for nearly three million people

by Leila Stayton-Dyke (BSc, PGCert, MSc, BCBA)
Early Action for Autism

Autism affects more than 700,000 people in the UK – that’s over 1% of the population. If you include family members, autism is part of daily life for 2.8 million people throughout the country.

Early recognition is important in order to allow children to reach their full potential
Each person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has different strengths. There is not a fixed set of behaviours which result in a diagnosis of autism. There are a range of traits including difficulty with communication and social skills, and ritualistic behaviours. Diagnosis is far from simple.

Parents of a young child are likely to be given conflicting advice about when developmental milestones should occur. They may be told that ‘children are different, they learn at different rates and in different ways’, so how do we know when developmental delays are part of an underlying condition?

Autism in the early stages of development
It may be difficult to see the early signs of autism as they can be subtle or attributed to a baby simply being laid back.

The initial signs are often related to the baby’s gaze, hearing and play. A young child with autism may appear not to see people, and may look out of the corner of their eye. The child may initially appear to be deaf, but rarely actually has any loss of hearing. Children with autism may also appear to have a general lack of interest in their surroundings.

As children get older the differences in development may become more apparent. Parents may notice a lack of empathy, different reactions to sensory stimuli – for example, finding noises, textures or sensations dramatically over or under stimulating. Refusal to try unfamiliar foods or to eat in unfamiliar settings, remaining in nappies, repetitive play activities and difficulties with the world not being exactly the way they would like, may also be seen.

What should I do if I see these early signs?
Health professionals should listen to all parental concerns. Take a family member or friend to visit your GP or Health Visitor. Go with a list of concerns, no matter how small, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. What you have observed might not be a sign of autism but you know your child best.

Getting a diagnosis of autism will allow children and their families to receive the education, support and services they require as they grow older. Due to the complex nature of autism the process is time consuming. However, there are specialist services and support groups immediately available; take time to talk to other families in a similar situation and join online groups.

Early recognition means that interventions can start. Research has shown that early intervention – programmes such Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), Positive Behaviour Support (PBS), Speech and Language Therapy (SLT), and Occupational Therapy (OT) are highly effective in supporting a child with autism. These evidence-based practices allow children to maximise their potential and reduce the delay from the normal patterns of development.

Children with autism crave sameness and routine, and breaks from that can often cause them to become disruptive – so it’s important that interventions begin as early as possible before these patterns of behaviour become established.

Early intervention ABA programmes are fun, motivating and creative. They successfully develop areas such as communication and social skills. Teaching a child to communicate their immediate desires results in a reduction of difficult problem behaviours and is an essential and ongoing element of an ABA programme. In turn, social skills such as increased eye contact and early conversation skills are taught. When started early, teaching self-help skills enables the child to become as independent as possible, for example, getting themselves dressed in the morning. By targeting selective eating, ABA programmes ensure children have a balanced healthy diet, leading to future long-term health.

Early Action for Autism is a centre for children with autism and related developmental disorders.
We provide specialist 1:1 ABA therapy, programme consultation and individualised training.
www.earlyactionforautism.co.uk