''It's not what's being said, it's what's NOT being said that's important''
Who doesn't want to return to their childhood, with no adult responsibilities, bills to pay or nine-to-five to go to. But we forget how stressful childhood can be, and today more so than ever. YoungMinds, the children's mental health charity, says that a worrying 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder, like stress, depression and anxiety – that's around three children in every class and the numbers look set to keep on rising.
Young people, like adults, experience stress, which can come from a variety of sources from bullying, sibling rivalry, parents getting divorced, moving house and peer pressure. These are all fairly normal parts of growing up, but because children now have less down time and expectations are so high, these ordinary problems can become magnified and less easy for them to deal with. Carole Spiers, Chair at the International Stress Management Association says,
"Parents are not trained to be parents and particularly in 2016, it's not an easy time to be a mum or dad because there are so many distractions and probably 40 years ago it was that much easier. Parents need support, they need guidance and they need help."
Here's how to spot the signs that something might be wrong in your children:
1. They want to skip school
It's no surprise to hear your child doesn't want to go to school the odd day, but if it becomes more frequent be aware that perhaps there's an underlying reason why they want to stay at home. So many things can cause of stress at school – exams, schoolwork, socially fitting in and at worst bullying.
Geraldine Walford, a consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry Dr Morton's – the medical helpline says that they may be stressed due to being at a different learning pace than others in their class. They may be very bright but a bit slower in reading for instance:
"They can easily be made to feel stupid and this puts them under great stress and they can start to be negative about school. Boys in particular can have problems with this and it can affect how they feel about other subjects too."
2. Their grades are slippingAnother tell-tale sign of stress is how their grades are. If they used to be getting As and Bs and they start getting Cs and Ds, then ask yourself why. Carole says
"You don't just go from a grade A to a grade D, it doesn't just happen overnight. Watch the grades, watch their efforts, speak to the teachers and attend all parents evenings Make time to go into school."
Children can also feel huge pressure from their parents and teachers during exam time. A recent study carried out by the NSPCC found that academic worries were the biggest cause of stress for nearly 50% of children:
"I remember working at the Samaritans and having a child of 12 who was feeling suicidal, purely because the expectations of them was so high and they knew they hadn't done well in their grades and they didn't have the courage to speak to their parents. We had to intervene and speak to the parents who didn't realise they were putting so much pressure on their child."
3. Their eating habits have changedAs with adults a big indicator of stress is how you relate to food. It can go two ways: a child can overeat, where they use food as a comfort or they can undereat and lose interest in eating altogether. Geraldine says:
"When you're a bit older, say aged nine or 10, food can be a real comfort, particularly when they can nip into the shop on the way home. Of course it doesn't help because they can put on weight and get bullied. It can also work the other way around where your child doesn't want to eat at all."
4. They say they feel physically ill
Understand that 'feeling sick' may be caused by stress. Stress can appear as physical symptoms, such as headaches and tummy aches. If this happens more frequently or increases in certain situations, like before an exam, the child may be experiencing stress. They may also show their stress in physical behavior, such as being more jumpy and less able to settle down.
5. They don't sleep through the night
Children who are suffering from stress often have poor sleep – they don't sleep through the night, have difficulty getting off or at worst wet the bed. When a child isn't getting enough sleep everything manifests as it does with adults and it's often difficult to cope with everyday situations. If they appear sleepy or more tired the following day, consider how many hours downtime they're getting:
"Modern technology plays such a big part in this. Your child may be taking their phone and iPad into bed with them and it maybe stopping them from sleeping. As wonderful as modern technology is, it needs to be monitored."
6. They have a negative outlook
Does your child appear sad and unhappy? Look at their behaviour and perhaps they're misbehaving to get your attention – but not even on a conscious level, says Geraldine. In a child who isn't usually badly behaved, it's an indicator.
Carole says that often a parent doesn't know what their child is getting caught up with, especially if they're working full time.
"You need to know the behaviour in your child normally to recognise any changes. It's often not what's being said that's important , but what's not being said."
What to do: listen (and translate)
Mum and daughter cooking in kitchen
Getty Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury
Carole says it's so important to listen to your child – often people don't ask them if there's something wrong and if you do, they may say 'nothing' but sometimes in order to get kids to talk, it's useful to spend individual time with them and get them to open up.
"Bake a cake, build some Lego, ask them general questions – like who sits next to you. Connect with them – they will open up when they have your individual attention."
If you feel something is wrong, the first port of call would be to speak to your GP. Sometimes a child may be reluctant to go to the doctor, but you can go on a child's behalf and talk about it initially.
For parents who are finding it hard to cope and are concerned, YoungMinds runs a Parents Helpline (0808 802 5544), which offers information and advice to any adult worried about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of a young person up to the age of 25.