Positive mental health tips for parents of SEN children

Positive mental health tips for children with SEN
If your child has special educational needs it can be particularly hard to identify mental health difficulties. Help them express their feelings and cope with life's ups and downs more effectively with these practical tips from parents from the disability charity Scope’s online community.

One in ten children aged between 5 and 16 in the UK have a mental health disorder, according to figures by the Office of National Statistics, and around 4% of children suffer from an emotional disorder such as anxiety or depression. Promoting mental health and wellbeing is important for all children, but particularly if your child has special educational needs. Children need to develop the skills to understand and express their emotions, and to develop strategies for coping with the ups and downs of life.

Children with special educational needs may experience a range of social, emotional and mental health problems, which can create a barrier to learning. But it's not always easy to identify mental health difficulties when many of the symptoms overlap with impairments such as autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).

The important thing to look out for is any change in your child’s usual behaviour patterns, for example, if they are:

  • Unusually withdrawn
  • Hyperactive and lacking concentration
  • Expressing sadness
  • Unusually anxious
  • Experiencing disturbed sleep or sleeping more than usual
  • Self harming
  • Expressing anger or fear
  • Asking unusual questions
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Less able to focus
  • Restless and fidgeting
  • Experiencing frequent tummy aches or headaches?

If your child’s mood and behaviour is disrupting their ability to function on a day-to-day basis, they could be suffering from a mental health problem. If they are becoming increasingly isolated at school or they are showing less interest in things that previously interested them, it may be worth talking to your GP.

Positive mental health tips from parents

It’s important to encourage your child’s emotional wellbeing and mental health from an early age. The following tips have been suggested to Scope by parents and professionals with experience of special educational needs.

  • Offer choices
    Children with special educational needs often experience a lack of control over their own lives. Try to support your child in making choices to maximise their independence.
  • Support emotional intelligence
    Support children to develop the skills to understand and express their emotions from an early age, using pictures, signs and other communication aids.
  • Set up a worry box
    Start a worry box with your child, especially if they have high anxiety levels. At the end of each day, talk about all the things they’re worrying about and encourage them to put them in the box. Every now and then open the box and talk about each worry, how your child is feeling and share some ways to handle the worry.
  • Express emotions
    Challenging behaviours are usually signs that your child is unhappy about something. Try to work out the message behind them. Encourage children to express and release their emotions in ways that suit them – whether that’s through art, music, movement, etc. Self-talk can often help a child with special educational needs process their feelings effectively, so try not to discourage it.
  • Acknowledge and label feelings
    Identify feelings as they arise. For example, if your child cries, tell them you understand they are sad and back this up with any communication aids you are using.
  • Write it down
    Sometimes it’s easier for children to write down how they’re feeling, rather than expressing it verbally. The process of writing can help calm their anger and frustration. If your child finds it difficult to tell you what’s upsetting them, try asking them to draw or paint a picture.
  • Channel energy
    Many children with special educational needs have their own unique way of coping. Find out what works for them. If your child expresses their feelings in physically aggressive ways, try to channel this energy appropriately, for example through sport or banging a drum.
  • Try different coping strategies
    Teach strategies for coping with difficult situations, such as deep breathing, counting to 10 or down from 10. Break cards are useful for allowing children with special educational needs to leave a situation they find uncomfortable; they can use the card to tell people they want to leave.
  • Play to promote mental and emotional wellbeing
    Partnership for Children is an independent charity which provides free resources for parents and teachers to help young children cope with difficult situations such as bereavement, bullying or divorce and separation. Try some of their suggested games with your child to help them deal with change, loss, conflict resolution and friendship issues.

Scope offers information, advice and support about disability. Scope’s online community has a dedicated tips section for parents to share suggestions and ideas on all aspects of supporting children with special educational needs. They welcome new tips from parents and would love to hear your feedback.