The October 2017 Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) National Child Health Poll focussed on child mental health issues and showed that 35% of Australian parents are confident they could recognise the signs of a mental health issue in their child, with a further third of parents believing a child’s mental health issues might be best left alone to work themselves out over time.
We caught up with Director of the poll, paediatrician Dr Anthea Rhodes, to find out how health and community professionals can support parents to better understand their children’s social and emotional health:
1. How can health and community professionals help parents to be more aware of their child’s social and emotional health?
Health and community professionals can help parents to better understand the social and emotional development of their children by raising awareness of the importance of mental health and explaining what good social and emotional health looks like for kids.
Good social and emotional health in children and young people involves:
  • being able to play, learn and be social with others
  • having healthy relationships and close bonds with family and friends
  • managing feelings and responses in a range of situations
  • being able to cope with challenges
  • having a positive outlook
  • developing and having good self-esteem.
Talking with parents about the common developmental stages, as well as physical and social challenges faced in different periods of childhood, will help them to navigate these challenges and build resilience in their child. It can also be helpful to direct parents to appropriate resources for support and information that can build their knowledge and understanding about how best to foster good emotional health in their child.
2. How can parents identify the signs of social, emotional and behavioural issues in children?
Social and emotional issues can affect children of any age. Many of the difficulties that adults can develop, such as anxiety or depression, can affect children too, but the signs and symptoms can be harder to spot because children are always growing and changing. Parents can find it hard to know whether their child is just going through a phase or facing more significant difficulties.
Patterns of emotion or behaviour that are particularly intense, go on for more than a few weeks and affect a child or young person’s ability to cope with everyday life at home, school or kinder may be a sign of a social or emotional issue.
Changes in behaviour that persist for a period of weeks and affect a child’s social interactions or day to day function and habits like eating, sleeping and playing, can also be a sign of an issue.
Signs of a possible social, emotional or behavioural issue in a younger child include:
  • frequently feeling sad
  • ongoing worries or fears
  • obsessions or compulsive habits that interfere with everyday life
  • ongoing issues getting along with other children or fitting in at school, kinder or child care
  • aggressive or consistently disobedient behaviour, such as frequent yelling, kicking, hitting, biting or damaging things around them
  • frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or tummy aches
  • sleep issues, including nightmares.
For older children and teenagers, signs of a possible social, emotional or behavioural issue include:
  • having trouble coping with everyday activities
  • seeming down, feeling hopeless, being frequently tearful or lacking motivation
  • having trouble eating or sleeping
  • difficulties with attention, memory or concentration, a drop in school performance, or suddenly refusing to go to school
  • avoiding friends or withdrawing from social contact
  • complaints of frequent physical pain, such as headache, tummy ache or backache
  • being aggressive or antisocial, for example, missing school, getting into trouble with the police, fighting or stealing
  • losing weight or being very anxious about weight or physical appearance
  • repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • self-harming behaviours.
3. What are some ways that health and community professionals can facilitate parents connecting with their children?
Parents connecting with their children is all about making their child feel safe, heard and valued. A strong and supportive relationship with a caregiver can help a child to build resilience and bounce back from many of the social and emotional challenges of childhood and adolescence.
In today’s busy world, many parents find it hard to find the time to focus on and connect with their children. Health care professionals can educate and support parents to find ways to focus on and connect with their children as part of their daily lives. It’s important to help parents to understand that connecting with their child doesn’t have to involve long periods of time or large amounts of money. In fact, it is best done as part of regular family life. A few short moments every day, when parents put away distractions like technology and focus on their child, to talk about or connect over something that is important to their child can have an impact.
With young children, connections can be fostered at bath time or when changing a nappy or reading a book. For school-aged kids, meal times and travel time, walking to school or in the car, can be a great opportunity for parents to focus on and chat with their child about what’s happening in their world.
A great way to connect with teenagers can be by regularly sharing an interest or an activity, such a playing or watching sport or walking the dog.
Many community professionals can also play an important role in supporting parents and children to connect through programs and activities that facilitate positive parent-child interactions, such as play groups and community sports and activity programs.
4. How can health and community professionals work with parents to address issues with their child’s social and emotional health?
Health and community professionals are the first port of call for many parents who have concerns about their child’s social and emotional health. Community-based professionals are well placed to support the whole family in accessing the help they need for their child or teenager. Many parents are unsure of how they can help to support their child’s social and emotional wellbeing at home. We have a role to play in helping families to understand that healthy lifestyle habits such as regular physical activity, healthy eating habits, regular good quality sleep and avoiding alcohol and other drugs, are important to support their child’s mental health.
5. What are some of the barriers to parents feeling confident about supporting their children and seeking help early?
Many parents are simply unsure whether their child has a social or emotional issue that could be benefited from professional help. Educating parents about the signs and symptoms of social, emotional and behavioural issues is an important way to empower them so they know when to seek help.
It is also often hard for parents to know what services are available and how to access them. Schools and community services can assist by having resources available to families to direct them to appropriate help. GPs and schools are often the first place a parent will go to seek help, so educational and primary care providers need to be adequately skilled and resourced to help direct families to appropriate support for their child.
Although it is reducing, stigma and concern about what others may think, remains a barrier to seeking help for some people. Raising awareness and destigmatising social and emotional issues in our community is another important way to help parents and young people feel empowered to seek help early.
6. Are there particular groups of parents, such as those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, who need education and support provided in ways that are different to what we are doing at the moment?
As with any area of health care and health education, a targeted and tailored approach is best. Some community groups have different needs when it comes to understanding social, emotional and behavioural health, and require tailored approaches for education and services. Families who are less well-resourced in terms of income and education are more likely to require additional supports and services to adequately access and use services to address child social and emotional issues. Wherever possible a whole-of-family, culturally sensitive approach is best to effectively tackle the complexities of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in children and young people.