For a parent who has noticed that their child has been withdrawn for weeks, that their behaviour has changed or that they have struggled to focus or concentrate – a realisation that their son or daughter has been struggling emotionally is only the start of a journey.
A counsellor can then build up an important relationship with the child, listen to them and help them work through what is happening in their lives.
They can give the young person the tools to help them cope.
But parents may often feel powerless to help.
As part of Children’s Mental Health Week, we spoke to Claudia Slabon, chief executive of Service Six, a BACP-accredited young people’s counselling service based in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire.
She shared some advice for parents if their child is having mental health difficulties or undergoing counselling.
Walk alongside your child
The most important thing, she says, is for parents to ‘walk alongside’ their child as they start working through what is going on in their lives.
As children go through this process, sometimes behaviour may get worse as feelings and emotions are explored.
“The need to ‘walk alongside’ is so important, not to be assertive, controlling or superior but to gently communicate on the same level,” she said.
“Exploring solutions together provides something new to focus on and a new experience or a change in routine can help your child who is ‘stuck’ in a negative pattern. Seek ways to relax and have fun with your child.”
She adds: “It is also important to give the child a place to feel safe and that they are also given the time to be heard.
“Sometimes allow the child just to sit there and give the time they need to share what is actually going on. Some things cannot be rushed.”
She says children need to know their parents care and are available to listen. Try to be open-minded and reassuring, she encourages.
But at the same time, she recommends not asking too many questions. The child may not wish to talk about their emotional struggles. It may cause further alienation and make the child feel even more alone or isolated.
What are the reasons for the problems?
She adds: “It’s important not to only focus on the often-displayed challenging behaviour of the child but the reasons behind it in the first place. Only once these issues are addressed will we be able to address the challenging behaviour/emotional struggles.
“Take the time to look at what it is that is going on for that child rather than automatically telling them off when they have done something wrong,” she says.
Simple Dos and Don’ts
Do praise the child’s strengths and abilities, says Claudia. Talk to school staff to work together developing an academic plan that meets the child’s needs
But don’t judge the child, she continues.
She adds: “Avoid judgemental comments or telling the child to stop feeling or behaving like this. Don’t give ultimatums as this could reinforce negative thoughts and low self-esteem.”
Claudia says parents can also help by offering distraction techniques such as: going for a walk; writing negative thoughts down and then ripping them up; painting or drawing as this is an alternative way of expressing emotions; let your child scream; encourage them to keep a journal or write poetry.
Don’t forget about your own mental health
And there’s one last piece of advice for mums and dads.
“For a parent to discover that their child is emotionally struggling can cause many emotions such as shock, hurt. Anger and powerlessness. As parent you should also consider off-loading your feelings onto a professional too,” she says.
You can find a BACP counsellor or psychotherapist via the BACP’s Therapist Directory.