Taking care of our children: The majority of emotional disorders begin during childhood. What does this mean for how best to intervene?

By February 14, 2018 The Wider World No Comments

One of the most striking findings I have read in 30 years of reading psychological development research papers was that half of all anxiety disorders begin before the individual is aged 11.





Yes, that does say 11. This means that by the time our children move from primary to secondary school, half of those who are going to suffer from an anxiety disorder during their lives will already be very unwell. Depressive disorders usually don’t begin until adolescence or later, but again, half of all those who will become depressed at some point in their life first experience the condition by the age of 21.


The importance of this cannot be underestimated, because these disorders are also highly stable, and whilst they may wax and wane, they tend to recur unless successfully treated (and sometimes even then). This is particularly problematic given that when you look at studies of life satisfaction, the strongest predictor is emotional well-being. Fundamentally we want our children to lead happy, healthy lives. If they experience recurring anxiety and/or depression, then they are neither happy nor healthy for significant periods of their childhood.

Whilst there are good treatments out there for these disorders, three major factors mean that many children do not receive the treatment they need. First is stigma, and the lack of understanding of these problems, so that a child is labeled as difficult, when the reason they are refusing to engage in certain activities is due to anxiety.  Second is awareness. Many parents are unaware that emotional difficulties can begin in childhood, and are unaware of how and where to get help. Third is access, and this relates to the fact that even once a child is referred to child and adolescent mental health services, there may not be resources to treat them promptly, or even at all. My clinical colleagues tell me that only the most severe cases get treated through the NHS, and where does that leave the rest? [Note in the resources given below there is an excellent book for parents to use with their child to support them in overcoming their anxiety].


“By bringing together parents, teachers and mental health professionals, hopefully we can maximize the number of children who complete their childhood both happy and healthy.”

In the context of Children’s Mental Health week, I’ve been keeping an eye out for initiatives aimed at improving the emotional well-being of our children. A wonderful beacon in this area is the Heads Together campaign, led by our Royal trio. Their warm, open and energetic approach to reducing stigma and increasing the conversation around child mental health is very welcome. Recently the Duchess of Cambridge opened a pilot study to provide teachers with up to date information about how to spot emotional symptoms in their classroom, when to act, and what to do about it. This information will all be on a curated website called “Mentally Healthy Schools”.


I was really excited about this as my own belief is that our teachers are best placed for identifying children with emotional difficulties, as they are not only with our children every day, but they also have a much better understanding than most parents of what the normal range is for any type of behavior. They are of course also a group who themselves are under stress, and we must be careful not to overburden them, but it seems that an initiative aimed at providing them with information is a really good starting point.

By bringing together parents, teachers and mental health professionals, hopefully we can maximize the number of children who complete their childhood both happy and healthy.

Some resources for parents and teachers concerned about the emotional health of a child:

  • Go see your GP if you are worried about your own emotional well-being or that of your child. They can discuss options for referral with you.
  • Overcoming your child’s fears and worries, by Cathy Creswell and Lucy Willetts. This excellent book is a parent guide to undertaking techniques that are known to help decrease anxiety symptoms.
  • Young Minds : A website with information about emotional well-being to support teachers and parents and young people
  • Mentally Healthy Schools: The website launched by the Duchess of Cambridge which provides curated information for teachers to access.