There has been a lot in the news recently about children and young people attempting suicide in order to access mental health treatment. This comes in the wake of other news reports that a third of NHS children’s mental health services face cuts or closure.

I read this news with a heavy heart, feeling very sad that these young people felt that they had no other option but to show the adults around them just how bad they were feeling in the most extreme way. A part of me feels more hopeful for these children, what concerns me even more are those children that have no strategy to get their needs met.

As children, we learn to get our needs met in three main ways. We may have adults in our lives that listen to us, respect our opinions and respond to our wants and needs. If we are in this group of children we are likely to have a sense that the world is a safe place, and if we ask for help we will receive it. These children are described as ‘securely attached’ and although they can face mental health challenges, the risks of developing a mental illness are greatly reduced as they have a very good start in life with their early relationships.

Other children may have experienced adults as inconsistent, sometimes available and sometimes not. These children develop strategies to get their needs met that involves ‘attention seeking’ behaviours. The term ‘attention seeking’ has so many negative connotations, but it is actually a very good strategy at getting adults to notice us. These are the children at school who are often seen as disruptive in class. What happens when they are disruptive? They get more adult attention. They might even get a one-to-one Teaching Assistant to work with. This strategy works! This is the strategy that you might say the young people in the news reports are trying – the only way that they can explain how difficult things are is through drastic action and suicidal intention.

The other group of children, and the group that are far more concerning in my opinion, are the children who do not know how to get their needs met at all. They are likely to have experienced adults in their lives who have dismissed their negative feelings. They are the ones who have been told to ‘man up’, ‘be a good girl’ or ‘stop crying’ when something difficult has happened. These feelings continue to be real, even though they’ve been dismissed, and so the child learns to squash those feelings down or disassociate from them. There is a very strong correlation for these children with mental health issues later down the line.

Knowing how to ask for help is such an important life lesson. We know that children learn through experience. If they ask for help in times of difficultly and do not get it then they are learning that their needs cannot be met by others. How do we expect them to be able to articulate their needs later in life as adults? How do we expect them to do this in relationships, or in the work place? We can’t expect children to develop these skills unless we role model what it’s like to be an adult who listens. An adult that really cares.

So, what can we do for our children to teach them how to ask for help?

This is where early intervention is so important, so that we can instil this brilliant life skill early on to prevent mental health issues and give children healthy coping strategies.

It’s simple really. When we are in tune with our own children, or the children in our care, we can use empathy to get in touch with what the child is really thinking and feeling. We can reflect this back to them using a short statement, for example ‘you seem angry about what just happened’. This really simple but effective technique creates a lightbulb moment for the child. They feel that you get them. You might not get the feeling right every time, but you are making an attempt to understand what might be going on – and this shows the child that there are adults who really care.

All too often children’s difficult feelings aren’t allowed because it can be hard for us as adults to hear that children are struggling, or we mistake their very real feelings as over exaggerations of how difficult everything really is. Next time, stop, listen and think – what can I say here to let this child know that I really get it – without giving advice, asking questions or trying to solve the problem? Reflect the feelings, see the change, make a difference to the life of that child.

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