Though it’s a well-known fact that rates of teenage mental health problems are increasing alarmingly, it is less recognised that very young children can feel stressed too. NHS Digital has suggested that self-harm in preschool children is on the rise, even among those as young as three who may bite, scratch, punch or slap themselves, maybe pull out their hair, or show changes in behaviour, emotions or health. Changes in a family’s circumstance – a house move, the birth of a new sibling, a death, a parental separation – as well as over-packed schedules, popularity concerns, bullying, even something disturbing on television can all be causes of stress for pre-school children. However, giving them a sense of well-being in their formative years can really get them off to a great start in life, reducing anxiety and increasing confidence, as well as affirming their sense of place in the world. These are all positives that will help them cope with their busy lives as they grow.
You don’t have to turn your toddlers into yoga bunnies exactly, but there are simple ways you can instil a sense of well-being in your child and help them to recognise and understand their feelings. Here are a few ideas:
Always try to establish eye contact, share looks and smiles with your child so he or she knows the bond with you is strong.
Hug your child often – hugs promote a sense of belonging.
Enjoy the moment – put down mobiles, switch off the television, engage in uninterrupted play, so your child feels valued.
Talk and listen – if your child wants to talk, stop what you are doing and listen.
Acknowledge effort – instead of saying they are really good at drawing, say it really shows how hard they have been practising. Recognising effort and progress helps children to learn to take pride in their achievements. This builds self-esteem, which makes bouncing back after a disappointment easier.
Be a role model – let your child see you reacting in a positive way to failure. For instance, say “I’m disappointed my cooking didn’t turn out right, but never mind, I’ll have another go another time.”
Encourage social interaction, so that your child develops a sense of their place in the world and helps them react comfortably with different people.
Talk about your child’s emotions and encourage him to recognise and label them. Then try to reassure him that such feelings are often experienced by other people too.
Set aside quiet times. Ask your child to lie down with you, eyes closed, and describe an imaginary relaxing place and scenario for them. Maybe lay down a particular rug or towel whose appearance triggers “peaceful time.”
Get outdoors! Encourage your child to explore and get dirty. Learning about their environment, the weather and nature reaffirms their place in the world. Fresh air promotes good sleep, too, which is conducive to a contented mind. Depending on your child’s age and attention span, think about trying the following exercises outside:
1. lie on a blanket and look at the clouds with your child. What shapes do you both see? How do these shapes alter in the wind? This promotes children’s imagination and will help them to visualise relaxing scenarios during quiet times.
2. go on a listening walk. After a few minutes, discuss what you’ve both heard. This can have a profoundly calming effect on a child, and encourage a sense of well-being they may then associate with their surroundings.
Turn your child’s favourite zoo animals into yoga poses. Yes indeed! If this isn’t in your usual remit, there’s a great book – The Yoga Zoo Adventure, by Helen Purperhart – to show you how it’s done. For example, for:
1. Crocodile – come down to plank pose on your hands and toes.
2. Bear (downward dog) – hands and feet in an upside-down V-shape and walk like a bear.
3. Tiger (cat pose) – come down to all fours, head down, back arched.
4. Hippo in the water (child’s pose) – kneel, then slowly move your head down to the floor, arms back on the floor towards your toes.
When it’s time to be concerned.
All of us can have an off-moment, a dodgy day or even a wobbly week, but it’s when a child’s behaviour and mood changes for longer, that we have reason to sit up and act. Verywell Family report that common signs of stress and anxiety include:
Behavioural or emotional changes
Behavioural changes, such as moodiness, aggression, or clinginess
Fears (fear of the dark, of being alone, of strangers)
Development of a nervous habit, such as nail biting
Withdrawal from family or friends
Refusal to go to school or nursery
Getting into trouble at school or nursery
Hoarding items of seeming insignificance
Decreased or increased appetite
Complaints of stomach aches or headaches
Sleep problems or nightmares
Other physical symptoms
What course of action can you take?
See your doctor who may refer you for paediatric counselling.
A structured programme to promote well-being can be of value. Laura Earnshaw developed the “myHappymind’’ initiative after her son had trouble settling in at school. She realised “what my little one needed: help with managing his emotions, forming relationships, feeling good about who he is, rather than comparing himself all the time.” Having set up a well-being programme for primary school children, Laura has now made one available to parents of two-to-four-year-olds. Take a look at https://myhappymind.org/
YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity championing the wellbeing and mental health of young people and has a parent support line. https://www.youngminds.org.uk
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