Children’s Mental Health Week: Express yourself

1ST to 7TH FEBRUARY 2021

We welcome the opportunity to spread awareness about Children’s Mental Health Week and the resources that are available to help parents and professionals support the well-being of children.

IRCT is a charity which has at its heart the idea of trying to improve the understanding the general public and government has about the mental health needs of vulnerable and traumatized children and a desire to improve the availability and access to appropriate services to provide help.

Place2Be, which is sponsoring Children’s Mental Health Week, also has a mission to improve the mental health of children and young people. They do this by providing mental health services in schools as well as training for teachers and other educational staff and parents. They also try to raise awareness about the mental health needs of children and young people and promoting Children’s Mental Health Week provides an opportunity to put a spotlight on the importance of being able to talk about emotional issues as well as to raise vital funds to support their work.

Place2Be promoted the first Children’s Mental Health Week in 2015 and its impact has grown every year. This year the theme is “Express Yourself” with an emphasis on helping children and young people to find ways to share their feelings, thoughts or ideas through creative activities such as art, music, dance, poetry, photography, film, drama etc.

Details about planned activities and resources for children, teachers and parents to use can be found on the Place2Be website and are available free. There is also an online conference on Friday 5th February entitled ‘Creativity as a Healing Tool: Connecting Mind Body & Imagination’

Credit: FilmMagic/Rodin Eckenroth
Amanda Gorman

Find out more about activities, events, resources and training opportunities and take inspiration from the poem by the  American Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, which she read at the inauguration of President Joe Biden


Talking about one’s mental health and expressing one’s feelings can be difficult no matter what your age. Children will not always know what they are feeling and they often struggle to put things into words. It is important for the adults around them to be able to look for non-verbal cues about what a child might be feeling by paying attention to changes in their behaviour or demeanour or the way they speak about things. Direct questions such as “How are you feeling?” tend to be responded to with a shrug or an “Alright!” Spending time with a child playing and engaging in creative activities is likely to be more revealing and the adult can begin to recognize themes in what the child is doing as they express themselves at a more unconscious level. It is important to leave the child to create what they want in the way that they want rather than trying to push them to create something ‘better’ or ‘more realistic’. The idea is not to strive for excellence but rather for free expression and fun! What is important is to encourage and notice with all one’s senses what is going on. Often the way something develops is more important than the final product. It is best to avoid too much probing or speculation about the meaning of creations but to be open to any suggestions.  To avoid the risk of projecting their own feelings onto the child it is best to avoid the temptation to make interpretations! The expression of a feeling even if not named can be therapeutic in its own right. If a child is aware of how they are feeling but does not know how to cope it can be helpful to give them the opportunity to express the emotion in a safe way through a creative activity when suggestions can be welcome as to how they might achieve it.

It is important to take into account that a child’s emotional response to a situation depends to a large extent on their capacity to understand. The cognitive capacity of pre-schoolers to make sense of things is more limited and as a result, the primary emotional response to stress is likely to be anxiety shown through hyper-arousal, regression, fear, aggression etc. As they move into a more egocentric phase of development around 4 or 5 years old they tend towards becoming the centre of their own world and begin to explore their own strengths and feel more powerful in terms of being able to make things happen instead of looking to adults to do things. This potential sense of omnipotence is curbed by adults reminding them that there are consequences to actions and with this comes responsibility and guilt. Children at this age tend to feel responsible for everything that happens and if, for example, their parents are cross or unhappy they will be sure that it has something to do with them. Guilt is silent and rarely expressed but it is deeply felt and only really recognized through the child’s behaviour and demeanour. Guilt gets added to anxiety. Once the child has the capacity to evaluate rights and justice they have the capacity to express unfairness in a meaningful way and one which can lead to real anger about the injustice of what is happening to them. This usually happens around the age of 9 or 10 years old. It is not until much later that young people develop the capacity to be able to compare the actual with the hypothetical and make a comparison along the lines of “if this had not happened to me my life would have been different”. The awareness that they have been subjected to a significant loss as a result of the trauma they have suffered can lead to depression in addition to the ongoing anxiety, the feeling that they may be to blame and the anger about the injustice of everything. That is a lot for any young person to have to bear and they should not have to face it alone.

Never has there been a more important time to give children a chance to express how they are feeling. Life as we knew it seems like a distant dream after nearly a year of living through a pandemic with long periods of lockdown conditions imposed on us. We are all constantly bombarded with frightening messages about the dire situation we are in. Families are confined to their own homes with parents trying to work from home and retain their jobs while homeschooling their children. There is financial hardship and insecurity for many. For the children and young people, the inability to be able to go to school consistently has led to worry and anxiety about the impact on their education and for the older ones fear of lost opportunities and career prospects. An inability to see their friends and socialize leads to further anxiety, loneliness, boredom and frustration. The loss of supportive adults at school means that there is less help available and nobody to independently monitor their well-being.

Research confirms that there has been an increase in child mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Summer of 2020 after the first period of lockdown was ending Young Minds (1) did a survey of children and young people and 80% of respondents reported that their mental health was “worse” than before the pandemic and of this 41% said that it was “much worse”. This was a 32% increase compared to March 2020. It is also the case that 11% said that their mental health was better than before and this seemed to be associated with having had a break from the pressures of their normal life including such things as bullying and academic pressure. One worrying feature of the survey was that 31% reported being unable to find any ongoing mental health support even though they had looked for it and needed it. Another 40% said that they needed help but had not actively looked for it. Another survey was conducted in the Autumn of 2020 when there was a short-lived uplift after schools were open and friendships were re-established but this was followed by a dip and a further 10% increase in those reporting mental health problems. Once again there were complaints about the lack of support services being available. Young Minds are calling for the government to provide funding to enable educational establishments to provide mental health support and additional funding for the NHS to provide help through the Child and Adolescent mental health Services. They are also promoting a well-being campaign targeted at helping children and young people to learn how to support themselves and ask for help when they need it.

A research study in the Lancet in January 2021 (2) compares the incidence of reported mental health problems before and during the pandemic and found a 5% increase in the 5 to 16 year age group with the highest incidence (27%) reported for teenage girls. It was found that children who had a parent in psychological distress were more likely to suffer mental health problems and those living in a household falling behind with the payment of bills and rent/mortgage were twice as likely to be suffering mental health problems. This is not surprising and perhaps the biggest factor in how children and young people weather stresses in their lives is how readily their parents/carers can provide an emotionally containing life experience for them and shield them from stress. When parents are experiencing increased stress themselves this is even more difficult than usual. Supporting parents is essential in order to achieve and maintain the well-being of children and young people

  1. Young Minds COVID-19 Survey
  2. Child Mental Health in England Before & During COVID-19 Lockdown Newlove-Delgado T et al January 2021

Sylvia Duncan

Clinical Child Psychologist

Chair IRCT