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Child Mental Health Difficulties are Rising at an Alarming Rate. What Can We Do to Slow it Down?

Child Mental Health Difficulties are Rising at an Alarming Rate. What Can We Do to Slow it Down?

When the intervention is too late.

At a time when child mental health difficulties are skyrocketing. What is causing it? What is being done to prevent it or at least slow it down?

I’ve said many times that the sooner we can get a child into our SEMH setting. The more chance we can engage them and repair some of the damage. We can equip those children who have had a traumatic past to have a more positive future. Having a child start with us at age 15, gives us little opportunity to influence change for them. It becomes nothing more than doing the best we can to get them some qualifications.

 

When it’s just in time

It’s common for the transition to secondary school is when things become too much for children. They leave the more nurturing, close-knit, smaller pool of staff. They go into this huge arena of different adults, personalities and a multitude of other children and it becomes too much. When children come to us at age 11/12 they still remember when school was more positive and that Primary experience. We can hopefully rebuild self-esteem and confidence and positively impact that child.

 

A better time

When we get that child earlier not only do we have more time to impact that child but we have more opportunity to repair any trauma that child has experienced. It doesn’t need to be rushed or forced and because of this even more success can be had. Sometimes even turning that child around and getting them successfully ready to return to mainstream. Now even though this has to be viewed as a success, it still means that that child has had to experience a lot of failure on top of the Developmental Trauma they have already experienced.

Mental Health referrals for under 11s is up by a third compared to 2 years ago. This is a scary increase and for a setting like ours where the youngest child is 8 we are already being reactive to a huge national issue.

 

A good time

As part of outreach, I am now working more and more with nurseries and key stage 1 who are already in a position where they are struggling to manage the volume of children showing signs of early Trauma and enter nursery and reception with few of the skills needed to cope.

What is the reason for this?

 

Are more children now suffering neglect?

In my opinion yes they are, but not physical neglect. Sure there are definitely more children on the poverty line who are struggling to have their basic needs met and this is contributing in some cases and partly to do with the increase in referrals, but the neglect is emotional neglect and in many cases it isn’t malicious, it comes from ignorance and a lack of understanding of how damaging it can be.

It comes from a lack of understanding of how a child’s brain develops and how much damage a lack of interaction can cause. I firmly believe that there are so many parents who are unwittingly causing their child trauma by ignoring them to go on phones, occupying children with technology instead of interacting, bonding and teaching them important things like how to regulate their body and emotions. These children are clean, well fed and live in nice houses but their brains aren’t growing as they should because their need for interaction, bonding and attunement aren’t being met. This results in a child who fears physical contact, who can’t self-regulate or calm down and who has massive struggles socially and fitting in.

 

Myth – ‘A quiet baby means they are happy!’

Not necessarily. A quiet baby can mean they have given up trying to get attention and interaction and this can be extraordinarily damaging. When that baby does not have their emotional needs met it can have a lasting impact. They grow up wondering why they weren’t worthy of love and attention. They grow up with brain deficiencies and without all of the tools needed.

So if we can intervene at reception or nursery then we stand more chance of repairing the damage. We can meet that need for understanding and become comfortable with physical contact and repair this fear. We can teach a child to better re-regulate their emotions and we can improve their
social skills. Most importantly we can build self-esteem up at a point in their lives before education has become about repeated failure. This has to be a good thing but it takes time, it takes resources and it takes very skilled educators. It also has to be done at a time when they are likely to be falling
behind academically which brings with it its own challenges, especially if developmental damage has been done.

Again though it is being reactive and it is trying to repair the damage that has already been done. Can’t we just for once be pro-active?

 

The best time

Before writing this I spoke to everyone I know who is due to have or has recently had a baby about what advice and knowledge they have been given regarding caring for their baby and there was plenty. I am not criticising midwives and health visitors. Those new parents knew lots about nutrition, feeding, changing and basic care needs. They all knew the benefits of interacting with respect to bonding and communication and why they should do it.

Sometimes though just knowing that we probably should do something puts us in a position of complacency. When tired and stressed it’s easy to become a bit lax. However, amongst the guidance and information. They had been given none of them knew to what extent they could damage to their baby if they don’t interact enough with them.

If this information was given to them then I think, they would get off the devices more, interact better and play more.

Therefore going some way to put a halt this alarming rise in children who are showing signs of emotional neglect. Even if a small percentage were shocked into action then the impact could be huge. I spoke to one parent who is due to her second baby any day now and her other daughter is 1. She hadn’t been given this information. But she remembered me showing her a 3-minute video called the ‘still face experiment’ about how not interacting with baby quickly causes distress.

That video impacted her that much that she went from being on the phone regularly to it only coming out when that child is asleep. Now I’m sure she would have been great anyway but having that information in the back of her mind made her a better parent.

 

The Facts

  • They didn’t know that the brain does 80% of its growth in the 1 st 3 years of life.
  • They didn’t know that just as with walking, talking and toilet training. Unless the caregiver teaches the baby to regulate their ability to calm down and self-soothe the child will be constantly in a state of stress and alarm.
  • They didn’t know that if babies don’t learn that touch is a pleasurable experience then they will fear physical contact and struggle socially and not know how to play with others, because they have never learned that touch is meant to be a pleasurable experience.
  • They didn’t know that without enough attention the baby’s brain won’t grow! The thinking part of the brain will not develop the same as other children. Impulse control, ability to calm down, memory retention and ability to learn will all be significantly damaged.

 

Conclusion

I passionately feel that many parents would be horrified. If this vital information was a big part of pre and antenatal care. Tt could make such a difference. I am convinced that if parents knew the extent to which they could damage their children just by being lax in their parenting. Then a lot of things would change.

I work with many parents who can’t put their children first and this won’t change them. However, I also work with many more who just weren’t aware of the damage they were doing. If we can help them by linking services, being proactive and informing them of potential harm. Then surely that makes sense.

By Graham Chatterly