How to spot an unhappy child

What’s the difference between a child who is out-of-sorts and one who is really unhappy? And what can you do to help?

As parents, we’d like it if every one of our child’s hurts could just be kissed better and they never felt sad. But ups and downs are part of life, and much as we might look back with a rose-tinted view of our own childhood it’s important to remember the tougher bits too – the nerves about starting at a new school and teenage heartbreak to name but two.

There are new stresses that today’s kids have to deal with too. For example, it always hurt when you were the ‘only one’ not to get invited to a party but we didn’t have to see everyone going on about how great it was on Facebook. And, whilst there have always been school bullies, we didn’t have to deal with cyberbullying too.

The challenge as a parent is to equip our kids with the skills to deal with life’s hurdles, support them as much as we can and, perhaps most importantly of all, recognise when there might a more serious problem or mental health issue.

Happiness: the five easy wins

Whilst we can’t keep our kids constantly feeling on top of the world (and shouldn’t try to), there are simple things that make a big difference.

  1. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep.
  2. Make sure they’re eating healthily. Our seven DOs and DON’Ts for fussy eaters can help.
  3. Make sure they’re getting exercise. We’ve got some great tips on getting them off screens and outdoors.
  4. Make sure they feel connected with people, including you. Keep talking and listening to them.
  5. Build their self-esteem. Make sure they don’t see their ‘value’ as being wrapped up in how they look or what they achieve.

Signs to look out for

If your child is unhappy, they may not come straight out and tell you, so it’s a good idea to be aware of warning signs that there may be a problem

Remember that you know your child best though and it’s all about trusting your instinct.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s a sustained change in behaviour that’s a cause for concern. Everyone has days when they feel a bit fed-up. But there might be a more serious issue if you notice any of the following:

  • Behaviour that’s unusual for them (like a usually extrovert child becoming withdrawn or quiet or a usually placid child becoming aggressive)
  • Excessive mood swings
  • Frequently complaining of physical ailments like stomach aches and headaches (obviously rule out a physical illness first)
  • Changes in appetite (though growth spurts can be a factor here)
  • Nightmares
  • Bedwetting when they’ve been dry for a while
  • Unwillingness to go to school

How you can help your child when they’re sad

If you know your child’s going through a rough patch, there’s lots you can do to help.

Start by thinking about those five easy happiness wins. Is your child getting enough sleep, eating healthily and exercising? Do they feel connected to others and how healthy is their self-esteem?

It’s vital you keep talking – and, even more importantly, listening to them. Be careful never to belittle their worries too. Your six-year-old’s misery at not being picked for the school play is massive to them. It’s also good to resist the urge to jump up and try to solve every problem but instead help your child to come up with solutions of their own. This is a vital life-skill.

Be particularly vigilant during ‘high stress’ times like starting a new school, exam time or dealing with their first heartbreak.

What to do if you think your child’s being bullied

If you think your child may be being bullied at school, your first step should be to listen without getting angry or upset (even though you will quite naturally feel both those things). Reassure your child that it’s not in any way their fault – there’s still a stigma attached to bullying – and that being bullied doesn’t make them weak.

Talk to your child about how you can work together to improve the situation, for example talking to the school about their anti-bullying policy. Tread gently though – for a lot of kids being bullied the greatest fear is that if they tell their parents they’ll steam in and make things even worse.

There’s more advice on dealing with bullying here.

When to seek more help

It can be hard to distinguish between a child who’s sad and one that’s struggling with a mental health disorder. This is because some of the symptoms of mental disorders, such as odd eating habits, anxiety and outbursts of temper are also a normal part of child and adolescent development.

Once again, it’s all about trusting your instinct. You know whether your teen is just going through a phase of faddy eating or whether there might be something more worrying underlying this.

If you’re in any doubt whatsoever, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Talk to your GP or child’s school counsellor or call one of the helplines listed below.

Make sure your get the support you need, too. The airline safety advice about fitting your own oxygen mask first is worth remembering.

Useful websites

Issues that make children unhappy can be complex. Try visiting these great websites for more tips, advice and ideas on next steps you can take:

Dealing with bullies

Children’s issues

Internet safety

Direct support for children