What Is Wellbeing?
When we think about a child with optimal wellbeing…what do we imagine? A healthy, happy child, well nurtured, provided for materially and educationally with access to all the opportunities life holds?
Wellbeing relates to quality of life dependent on our ability to fulfil personal and social goals. However, our perceptions of quality of life vary. What makes one person happy may be another’s idea of misery. Yet it is fair to assume most consider good family relationships, happy home lives, meaningful friendships, good health, education and hope for a secure future as the main contenders in maintaining optimal wellbeing. All of which we would wish for every child.
The Wellbeing Decline
After the last 15 months, it will come as no surprise that wellbeing levels for children are at an all time low. The pandemic with its associated lockdowns impacted everyone’s wellbeing, but looking at the situation from a child’s perspective, we can see how the uncertainties and frustrations of the situation raised anxiety levels. Something I am sure we can all relate to. Our worlds were turned upside down and many of us…not least our children…are still recovering and trying to adapt to the new ‘normal’.
Even before the pandemic, a decline in children’s wellbeing was evident. According to ‘The Good Childhood Report 2020’, children in the UK are among the least happy in Europe.
So, what exactly has been impacting the wellbeing of our children? Pandemic aside, there are many other factors contributing to the overall feeling of malaise.
I spoke with a range of people invested in children’s wellbeing. Parents, grandparents, teachers, child counsellors and perhaps most importantly, the children themselves. What do they feel the main factors impacting children’s wellbeing are and what can we do to help support their wellbeing?
Pandemic Effects On Children’s Wellbeing
Primary school teacher Heather describes the effect the lockdowns have had on her pupils: “Some children have become more withdrawn following the lack of face to face contact with different adults and children. “
This is an understandable reaction to the associated anxieties of socialising and will likely take time to readjust.
Manjeet, child counsellor at The Henry Centre mentions how the transition from primary school into senior school was so difficult throughout the pandemic. The usual groundwork such as transition days, was not always available. She noticed an increase in children requiring counselling support which needed to take place online during lockdowns. What became evident to her through speaking with these children was how the school environment plays a key role in overall wellbeing. They struggled with their time away from school. Routine, face to face communication, structure and mental stimulation are all such vital factors in wellbeing.
Internet Safety And Social Media Influence
Since the rise of internet communication, we are increasingly impacted by social media. This affects children to a large extent. Much of their social interaction takes place online (particularly throughout the pandemic). The proliferation of chat groups on social media platforms means children can find themselves added to groups without their consent. A bombardment of continual messages can be stressful (some of which can lean towards cyber bullying). It’s an unlimited world of interaction with limited means of protection. Online information and communication needs to be extracted and constructed safely and mindfully. But are we really in control of what our children can access online? We need to stay up to date on how best to support our children with internet safety and empower them with the knowledge to navigate their way safely. Let’s face it, we can’t avoid the need for online connection and this communication tool can be such a positive resource. Fortunately, schools are providing children with internet safety lessons and workshops for parents.
Speaking with mother and grandmother, Julie, she believes the main impactor of children’s wellbeing is social media. “The impact social media has on children can be very destructive. It makes children feel inadequate, fearful and can lure them into highly dangerous territory. Their wellbeing is at risk due to what’s out there and it’s so easily accessible.”
Social media can feed the culture of comparisons/ influences/ FOMO (fear of missing out) pressure to fit in and this can all raise anxiety. Children are exposed to more information now than we were as children. Without sufficient safeguards in place it is possible for children to access information inappropriate for their age. This can have a lasting detrimental effect on the vulnerable mind of a child.
Primary school teacher Heather illustrates this, “Images showing unobtainable bodies in social media affect children’s wellbeing. My own seven year old thinks she is fat.”
Manjeet has noticed an alarming increase in eating disorders throughout the pandemic which she believes can be attributed to two things. The closure of eating disorder services during lockdown. (Vulnerable children were prevented from obtaining vital support from in-person communication.) She also feels pervasive anxiety from the pandemic itself (the associated lack of control) led children and young people predisposed to eating disorders to attempt to claw back some control through their eating habits.
I spoke with Terry, a counsellor at The Henry Centre. He also believes social media is a big influence on children. He noted how it can be used as a powerful, manipulative tool. “Social media can be used as a weapon. It presents the opportunity of cyber bullying. Children can’t leave it at the school gates. It comes home with them. The existence of chat rooms devoted to subjects like self harm or eating disorders provides readily available hints and tips. Peer pressure has always existed, but since the invention of the smartphone, there is no escape from people’s opinions and social influence.” He goes on to say, “Many children become secretive about their use of social media, in their attempt to hide their inquisitiveness from their parents.”
However, Terry is careful to point out the positive aspects of social media. “Lockdown negatively impacted the wellbeing of children. As we know, face to face interaction is beneficial to our wellbeing. Socialising has been made possible via online platforms and this helped ease the pressures of lockdown for children.” It seems the benefits of social media can balance the negative aspects, provided we have the right approach to online safety.
So as to gain a balanced perspective it is important to include the views of a child. I spoke with 12 year-old Will. He seems to appreciate boundaries. “I think it’s important kids have enough time to socialise, even if that’s online, but not too much screen time because it just gets boring.” He went on to describe how some children in his school year play computer games with a higher age rating than is appropriate. “I think that’s dangerous. Once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it. Parents should make sure the game is an appropriate age (certificate).” He feels it’s important for children to feel protected by their parents. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I was allowed unsupervised access on the internet.”
Heather speaks about her practice as a parent. “I always encourage time spent outside away from electronic devices.”
Education and Wellbeing
The amount of agency children have in life affects their levels of happiness. The Good Childhood Report acknowledges this impact.
As their report suggests, the type of school children attend plays a significant part in their happiness. According to research conducted in 2008 by Gutman and Feinstein, learning is closely intertwined with wellbeing. “The school environment…plays an important role in children’s social, emotional and behavioural wellbeing”. (Gutman and Feinstein, 2008). The positive association between learning and wellbeing has lasting effects through childhood into adolescence. For boys, this predicts their wellbeing in terms of behaviour, whereas for girls, the effects can be seen in their social wellbeing. (Gutman et al., 2010).
Heather speaks about the importance of education providers “They play a key role in supporting wellbeing and identifying issues early on which could prevent them from developing into greater problems.”
The young people Terry works with provides him with an invaluable insight into the wellbeing of this age group. He highlights pressures children feel as a result of missed schooling due to lockdowns. “I’ve seen how the situation created anxiety for younger clients. Some missed up to six months of school. Children worry if they can achieve the grades they need to to get them to the next level.” Anxiety is a natural response to a situation where there appears to be no answers. However, if anxiety is unregulated, it can lead to serious issues such as self harm, depression and even suicide.
Will spoke about his levels of wellbeing in school. “My wellbeing seems to be affected by others around me. I don’t have control over the kids I have to be with at school and their behaviour affects how I feel.” This lack of control highlights the agency factor the Good Childhood Report sites as significant in the attainment of happiness. He explained how frustrated he feels when he perceives teachers as handling situations unfairly. He suggests children need to respect other children’s needs. He feels this could be supported by teachers clearly explaining boundaries to children. Interestingly, he expresses “I actually think there should be more discipline from teachers” which is contrary to what most people would assume children want.
Family relationships and home life
As The Good Childhood Report suggests, the way children perceive their family relationships and home life impacts their happiness levels.
Heather notes the importance of family quality time. “I try to make family dinner time an opportunity to talk to each other.”
Terry cites the lockdowns as having put unforeseen pressures on some parents, such as job losses and even home losses. “Some turned to self-medication such as drugs and alcohol which spiralled out of control.” This undoubtedly severely impacted children. “Some families experienced an increase in domestic violence which negatively impacted children who witnessed this. Some bore the brunt of their parent’s self medication through abuse or neglect.” Terry’s findings are in line with research. ‘In just one month, the number of new cases (or child domestic abuse) rose by 1493% compared with the same period over the previous three years.’ (Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2021.)
It is worth noting, as we emerge from the pandemic, those who experienced a decline in wellbeing are now in a position to rebuild their lives both personally and socially (although the journey may not be easy).
Manjeet acknowledges the importance of parental mental health in terms of a wider perspective. “Parents need the capacity to help their children, so a holistic approach is needed when looking at the wellbeing of children.”
How issues are discussed within families influences how a child learns to communicate and subsequently deal with more serious aspects of life.
Manjeet points to family therapy as a consideration. She notes how many issues experienced in families, such as eating disorders can be intergenerational. “Issues can be unwittingly passed down. Opening up the dialogue can be incredibly valuable.” She acknowledges some children aren’t encouraged to talk about mental health issues within their family. “It’s important children are given the opportunity to open up that line of communication within their wider world.” This is where counselling can help.
The Impact Of Children’s Wellbeing On Our Wellbeing?
Anyone invested in the wellbeing of children will recognise an empathic connection with the way children feel.
As Heather explains to me, “Unhappy children make for an unhappy classroom. If they’re not in a ‘good place’, learning becomes difficult, impacting progress and self-worth which is an essential part of their development.”
Julie also notes the impact on teachers, “Any outside influence impacting the wellbeing of my children or grandchildren makes me feel stressed and worried.”
Terry’s views align with this. “My mood is definitely affected by my child’s. If he is suffering, I feel a personal responsibility to remedy that. It can be draining.”
Being invested in the wellbeing of children means our work is cut out for us, so we need to find positive ways to manage any associated stress. Parenting groups, family therapy and/or personal therapy can play a key role.
Negative Effects Of An Unhappy Childhood
As previously touched upon, negative childhood experiences can be passed on from generation to generation, which can, if unaddressed, result in intergenerational wellbeing issues.
Terry explains how mental health in adult life begins in childhood. “Unhappiness in childhood impacts the child’s wellbeing into adolescence and beyond. If a child experiences trauma this manifests in a variety of ways including personality disorders. If left untreated, their personal crises can have far reaching implications for all around including friends, family or colleagues.”
Will offers his perspective and voices his fears for the future: “If a child is unhappy at home, they might act out at school. They will do as they please and disobey rules if they don’t have rules at home. I worry about where the world is going with some kids in my school. If they’re behaving disrespectfully now, what will they be like as adults?”
Almost in answer to Will’s question, Heather speaks of her experience. “Those with unsettled beginnings in care, poverty or having experienced early bereavement went on to lead troubled lives. I can think of at least three I taught who are either in prison or in trouble with the law. I think there is a direct link.” She goes on to explain how supportive home lives provide grounding for success later in life. “There is an unfair stigma attached to people who had disadvantaged childhoods. If they can’t achieve good exam results because of their home lives, it’s difficult to secure good jobs. The cycle may continue with their own children.”
How To Improve Our Children’s Wellbeing
Although the type of help required depends on the individual as needs differ from person to person, modelling positive behaviour, positive praise, listening and quality time are among the most agreed upon methods of supporting wellbeing.
Heather speaks about the benefits of children appropriately witnessing their parents’ emotions. “This demonstrates it’s ok to feel emotions and models how they can be managed. Children need to learn to take responsibility for their feelings; but to do that, they need help identifying what those feelings are.”
Heather highlights the link between positive praise and wellbeing. “Rather than focusing on negative aspects of behaviour, celebrating successes can empower children and encourage further positive behaviour.”
Julie notes the importance of children feeling able to reach out. “Adults need to take an interest, really listen to children and keep the lines of communication open.”
Will appreciates quality time with his mum. “I think all parents should spend time bonding with their kids over things their kids enjoy doing.”
Physical and Mental Wellbeing
Manjeet feels the government previously focused on physical wellbeing to the detriment of mental health. “They have placed a lot of emphasis on funding to support physical health; but what about mental and emotional health?” Although it is important to take care of our physical health, a holistic approach to health has long term benefits. As the Mental Health Foundation states, ‘We often think of our mind and body as separate, but our mental health and physical health are interconnected.’ (Mental Health Foundation 2021.)
Wellbeing on a widespread scale
Heather points to the benefits of positive societal influences. “Children need and seek out positive role models to aspire to.”
Terry asserts the importance of raising awareness around issues such as self harm and suicide, the subject of which is widely shared via social media. “It’s important to remember self harm is not necessarily linked to suicide. Self harm is about changing the way you feel, whereas suicide is about ending the way you feel but social media doesn’t always make that distinction. Things can get dangerous.”
Julie suggests “The government can look at ways to make social media more responsible for what they share, as currently, children have a false sense of reality.”
Will speaks about appropriate control and structure. “Teachers should be able to control the class.” Referring to the issue of gang culture, he says “There should be more police out on the streets, especially rough areas.”
Government Support For Children’s Wellbeing.
Heather shares her views, “The government needs to put more funding into wellbeing programmes in schools, especially in light of the pandemic.”
Will puts his thoughts across, “I think the government needs to make more youth centres to help get gangs off the street.” He also mentioned the importance of child-led help through authorities asking children what they need rather than just prescribing what they assume they need. “What about a survey of what the kids like doing most in their spare time?”
‘Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision’ is a ‘green paper’ government document stating planned improvements. Among the points mentioned, it is proposed there will be a mental health specialist in each school and provision of a lead in mental health in every school and college by 2025. They also pledge to reduce waiting times for treatment from children and young people’s mental health services.’ The government also aims to work with the Children’s Commissioner to explore how social media affects children and young people’s health. They pledge support to families of children with a higher risk of developing mental health problems. They also promise to continue researching how to prevent mental health problems. (Gov.UK 2021)
How Children Can Help Themselves
An effective way to empower children is by inviting personal responsibility for their wellbeing.
Heather speaks about how we can do this. “It’s important to encourage children to have lots of interests, do things they enjoy and not give in to peer pressure to fit in. We have a picture in class of a group of fish swimming one way and one is going alone in the opposite direction. We say ‘Be the fish’! It’s positive to be different.”
Julie feels it is important kids are educated not to use social media as a guide for life.
Will acknowledges the importance of children being mindful of the amount of sugar they consume. “I’ve noticed fizzy drinks can make me feel argumentative. I like fizzy drinks and don’t want to stop drinking them, but it’s important to drink a sensible amount.” (A reminder of how our physical and mental wellbeing is intertwined.)
Some children benefit from having the company of pets. Will tells me “I have 2 dogs and a cat and they help me feel happy.” The therapeutic effect of animals is well documented. He also notes how being creative, playing with Lego and listening to music helps calm him.
Serious Wellbeing Situations
In an emergency situation where a child’s safety is at risk, it is important to act swiftly. Depending on the situation, be it self harm or planned suicide, it may be appropriate to involve emergency services. Obviously we want to avoid a crisis situation and put safety precautions in place to help prevent the possibility of a child harming themselves or others. This is why it is important to put wellbeing strategies in place as soon as possible.
Manjeet recommends supportive websites designed for children like YOUNG MINDS, KOOTH and PAPYRUS as especially beneficial for children uncomfortable speaking to adults. This cultivates a reflective practice on wellbeing and possibly an openness to the concept of counselling.
Although every parent would like to think their child would speak with them about absolutely anything, some may fear upsetting their parents or worry about potential judgement. Sometimes it’s easier to speak with someone who isn’t so close.
Manjeet explains how short term counselling can help support children through a difficult patch. “Children may need some space away via personal therapy. Child-led conversations are so beneficial to help empower a child in a situation where they feel they have no control.’
Every child has the right to a bright future. Knowing children are concerned about the negative effects of an unhappy childhood on society is a warning to us all. We must act now to secure our children’s wellbeing, helping foster a positive future for us all.
The Henry Centre
The Henry Centre therapists are experienced and highly trained to masters level to work specifically with a younger age group. The centre provides space specifically designed for children and young people.
Understandably, the NHS is currently overwhelmed with requests for support for children’s mental health. Clearly they are doing their best under strenuous circumstances, but consequently, waiting lists are long. Depending on the severity of the situation, time may be of the essence. Please contact the centre if you would like to arrange some professional support for the emotional wellbeing of a child or young person you care for. The Henry Centre can arrange an initial assessment to be carried out within the same week.
Abomeli, Baker, Hameed, Mankad, Sidpra,. Rise in the incidence of abusive head trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic. 2021. 1st ed. London: BMJ, Archives of Disease in Childhood, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd & Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
GOV.UK. 2021. Quick read: Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision – GOV.UK . [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/transforming-children-and-young-peoples-mental-health-provision-a-green-paper/quick-read-transforming-children-and-young-peoples-mental-health-provision. [Accessed 19 July 2021].
Mental Health Foundation. 2021. Physical health and mental health | Mental Health Foundation. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/p/physical-health-and-mental-health. [Accessed 19 July 2021].
The Children’s Society. The good childhood report.https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/good-childhood Date: 2020 Date accessed: July 8, 2021