Parents do not consider themselves when their child is struggling with their mental health; they naturally put everything into reassuring their child and getting them support. Though pain begets pain, and thoughts as natural as maternal and paternal love can be heartbreaking: ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘Did I cause this?’ And ‘how can I support them if I am the cause?’

Pre-pandemic, in times that were more comprehensible, children and young people were increasingly year-on-year calling out for access to mental health services. And report-after-report has shown that children and young people's mental health have considerably suffered during the pandemic. So, it is fair to predict that post-pandemic, the number of children and young people in distress will continue this trend and rise.

Suzanne Alderson, founder of Parenting Mental Health and author of Never Let Go: How to Parent Your Child Through Mental Illness, has intimate knowledge of what it is like to nurture a child dealing with their emotional pain. She spoke to Mental Health Today about the parent's role in breaking the silence about mental health, the dismantling of negative blame saturated thoughts, and the importance of setting an example regarding your own care.

Demonstrate that you are worthy of care

Being a role model is undoubtedly a crucial aspect of being a parent; values, morals, and some of our less principled behaviours pass onto the next generations as an inheritance of sorts. Similarly, Suzanne described that one of the lessons that she learnt from her daughter’s experience was that she was the “blueprint for her”, and therefore she needed to show her daughter that she was “worthy of care” as well.

Suzanne explained: “I needed to understand that if I was drinking too much wine or spending too much [time shopping] online or things like that, that they're not healthy behaviours for me, but they're also not healthy mechanisms for her to see that I deal with my stress in that way.”

She suggested that an excellent place to start analysing your role as a blueprint would be by “going back to the basics” of self-care such as getting enough sleep, hydrating, and exercising, as well as by avoiding the bad habits that parents tell their children to avoid but secretly enjoy. But in addition to self-care, Suzanne added that parents need to demonstrate to their child that they are looking after their own mental wellbeing through seeking professional help if they require it.

“First of all, acknowledge that you have mental health yourself.”

How to take the first steps if you are concerned: MASK

As more and more children are experiencing uncomfortable emotions, many more parents will have to navigate opening up a discussion with their child and may have to direct them for professional help.

Opening up a discussion with your child if you are concerned about their mental health may seem difficult as they may not be able to express their emotions clearly through language; however, Suzanne said that she advises the use of the acronym MASK as a frame for setting out a stepped approach for examining and if necessary, addressing any mental health difficulties.

Suzanne commented: “The first letter M is for monitor. So, you can't just take a snapshot, actually monitor their moods, monitor the changing behaviour. Is this a one-off? Is it because of something that's happened? Or is this a trend that you're seeing over time, and that's really important because that's the insight that you can share with your child, but also, you could share with professionals if you end up escalating it.”

“The second one is A, ask your child, talk to them about it, ask them how you can help them, ask them how they're feeling and say you understand that they might not be able to articulate it. But also, don't have an accusative conversation, make it a really open one, ‘I've noticed that these things are changing with you, and I'm concerned about it, how are you doing?’”

“The S is for seek help. And that's on a number of levels, seek help for yourself. If you feel that this is overwhelming for you... But also seek help for your child if they are open to it if they feel, and you feel that it's necessary. So, speak to the school, speak to the school nurse, or your child can use online services like Kooth.”

“And then the last one, K, is really about keeping calm. As I say, this isn't a judgment on your child or your parenting. And it's about just having calm conversations realising that maybe there are some things that are worrying your child, maybe there are some anxieties that have grown. Maybe you've been giving your child some anxiety through your behaviours. But it's all doable.”

Don’t blame yourself

From her professional and personal experience, Suzanne said that one of the driving instincts for parents is being a fixer and problem solver. One of the emotions that can arise from this drive when a child is unwell is personal blame. But she described this mind space as "pointless" as it detracts from the positive support you can potentially provide if your child is in distress.

“Keep reminding yourself that you didn't cause this; there are so many inputs into young people lives now that we're not actually in control of. So, I think it's really important that parents see themselves not as the kind of controller of their child's mental health and wellbeing, but actually a facilitator for positive wellbeing”, she said.

Additionally, blame can also be invalidating as it denies the child their own personal experience, and it assumes that the parent completely understands the complexities of their lives. Suzanne suggested that alternatively, as well as providing positive support, that the parent listens to their child's experience and acts upon those assumptions as a partner, and not necessarily as a parent or as an overwhelming authority figure.

Getting help

If your child is going through a mental health crisis, it can often feel overwhelming and isolating; however, support is out there. Parenting Mental Health is a community that envisions to help parents to bring about positive changes in their child through modelling better behaviours around acceptance, communication, and self-care.