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Helping children to manage worry and challenge unhelpful thinking

By 30/11/2022No Comments
worried child

by Gosia Bowling
National Lead for Mental Health at Nuffield Health

With almost half of parents expressing fears that the pandemic has impacted their children’s mental health, how exactly can concerned caregivers reach out and support children in managing unhelpful thinking?

The value of listening
Conversations around emotional wellbeing are difficult for anyone, let alone children – who worry they’ll be viewed differently if they admit to experiencing negative thoughts.

So, they must be handled sensitively, at the right moment. For example, instead of sitting down for a formal chat, gently introduce questions while engaging in other activities or games.

Listening is then key. We often feel the need to interrogate or offer advice but remember to take a step back – it is important that this is their time to talk and our time to listen.

Focus on ‘reflective listening’ – the skill of letting the speaker know they’re being understood without shifting the focus away from the content of their speech.

This may include echoing feelings back to them, for example, “you’re worried that exams will be harder this year”, without attempting to offer a personal perspective or solution.

This shows the child you aren’t looking for a quick-fix or trivialising their feelings but deeply understanding and validating their worries.

Normalise feelings
The reason many individuals feel reluctant to speak or seek help is that they believe they are alone in their experiences. That their thoughts and experiences are unique and therefore no one can support them.

This often manifests in expressions like “you must think I’m crazy” or “do you think differently of me now?” and stresses the importance of normalising feelings of distress.

Once children learn their experiences are not only common but expected, they are more open to exploring them – taking comfort in the knowledge that those around them have experienced the same emotions and learned how to manage them.

The process of normalisation may start with phrases of agreement, like “I would be stressed too if I were in your situation” before moving towards reassurance, such as “these feelings are common’” and “every other child will be anxious about moving classes, too”.

Embrace support
Caregivers should remember they can’t be expected to have all the answers. There is truth to the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and there is no shame in welcoming support from the community.

This may include family, friends and even those in positions of responsibility like teachers or sports coaches.

Caregivers can confide in others without breaking the trust or confidentiality of the child. For example, the content of direct conversations doesn’t need to be relayed and it could be as simple as stating you’ve noticed the child isn’t as chatty or active as usual recently.

Making others aware of the challenges facing the child increases the opportunities for someone to ask questions, open a dialogue and share how they’ve coped with similar experiences in their life.

This support may also come in the form of formal tools and education. Caregivers are encouraged to learn about common behaviours and thinking patterns associated with mental health difficulties – from recognising the signs in themselves or others to working with managing unhelpful thought patterns with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

For example, Nuffield Health has teamed up with SilverCloud to deliver a CBT module aimed at those dealing with anxiety and low mood in young people, offering support and tools including coping mechanisms.

These include positive communication skills, thinking patterns and breathing techniques designed to prevent feelings of emotional distress from spiralling, as well as preventative strategies like problem-solving and self-esteem building, to equip caregivers with all the tools needed to support and educate children.

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