Psychological wellbeing in children

Psychological wellbeing in children includes both their mental and their emotional health; it is as important to their development as physical health is. Good psychological wellbeing gives children the best chance to develop into well-rounded, healthy adults who have the coping skills in place to deal with day-to-day life.

Neuraxpharm provides natural alternatives to promote psychological wellbeing in children and once your doctor has determined their specific needs, they can advise the product that best adapts to their needs and condition.

Find out more about what can affect children’s psychological wellbeing and how we can help them to stay well.

What can affect childhood psychological wellbeing?

Psychological wellbeing is an essential part of children’s overall health. It has a direct relationship with their physical health and their ability to do well at school, in relationships, and in daily life in general.

A child’s psychological wellbeing can be influenced by a number of factors, such as their family and school life and the wider environment. Mental health and physical health are closely linked, and issues with one may lead to problems with the other; for example, a child who is experiencing low moods may not go out and play with friends and, in turn, may not get the exercise they need to stay physically fit and healthy.

The main types of issues children experience

Children can experience a range of mental and emotional wellbeing issues that can manifest as low mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, poor social skills with friends and family, signs of stress, and high worry levels.

These can sometimes be signs of poor mental health, and they can affect a child’s ability to perform well at school and socially, with a generally negative impact on their overall wellbeing and enjoyment of life.

Potential links between physical and mental health in children

There are close links between physical and mental health in both children and adults.

In particular, research has shown that there may be a link between children’s digestive health and their mental health. Scientists refer to the body having two brains: one in the head and one in the intestine. They both develop from the same kind of tissue at conception, then one part turns into the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the other into the enteric nervous system (the gut). The two are controlled by the same hormones and neurotransmitters; they are connected through the vagus nerve and are in constant communication with each other. This unique connection is known as the ‘gut–brain axis’.

Features of the intestinal microbiota (the microorganisms that live within the human gut) can affect development of the brain, immune system, lungs and growth. An imbalance in gut bacteria has been associated with diseases in children and adults, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma and allergies.

One of the most important neurotransmitters in the regulation and control of mood is serotonin, often referred to as the ‘happiness hormone’. The gut produces about 95% of the serotonin in the body, and changes in serotonin levels affect the gut as well as the brain.

Thanks to the gut–brain axis, stress is also associated with changes in gut bacteria. This means that people who suffer from stress can be more susceptible to pain, bloating, and other digestive discomfort.

When gut bacteria are out of balance, it can have a wide-ranging effect on the health of the body and mind.

Some children also experience what is known as ‘somatic symptom disorder’, in which they feel physical pain or distress that can’t be attributed to any medical disorder but that may be caused by psychological or emotional distress.

Whatever the cause, poor physical health can stop children taking part in activities they enjoy or make them feel different to other children, which can affect their overall wellbeing. In turn, low mood may lead to children choosing not to take part in activities that could both improve their physical health and release endorphins, which can improve mood.

What are the main signs to look out for in children?

Children can develop the same mental health conditions as adults, but their symptoms can be different. Most symptoms relate to persistent changes in a child’s behaviour.

Common signs of poor psychological wellbeing

Warning signs that a child may be experiencing poor psychological wellbeing include:

  • Significant changes in their behaviour and mood, either at home or elsewhere (such as at school or at friends’ houses)
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Problems with concentration
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of social situations and activities they used to enjoy
  • Persistent feelings of sadness
  • Changes in eating habits – including eating too much or too little
  • Self-harm or neglect
  • Problems at school, including truancy or a drop in grades
  • Frequent headaches or stomach-aches
  • Worrying or crying more than usual

Causes and risk factors

As with adults, possible causes and risk factors for poor psychological wellbeing in children can stem from both their genes and the environment around them.

What can cause poor psychological wellbeing in children?

Children may experience poor mental health linked to their genes if a certain problem is hereditary (runs in the family).

A child’s home environment can also have an effect. For example, children living in poverty or suffering from neglect, domestic violence, or abuse will be particularly vulnerable.

Traumatic events or changes, such as the birth of a new brother or sister, a change of school, or moving house, may also trigger problems for some children.

Are some children more at risk?

Childhood mental health problems affect many families; however, some may be more at risk due to their living circumstances or outside influences. Potential risk factors for children include:

  • Experiencing a traumatic event, such as the death of a close family member or their parents divorcing
  • Having a long-term physical illness
  • Having a parent with mental health or substance misuse problems
  • Experiencing neglect or abuse
  • Experiencing bullying
  • Having financial problems at home, including poor housing
  • Acting as a carer or in another such role of responsibility
  • Ongoing difficulties at school

Supporting psychological wellbeing in children

It’s important that we support children who are experiencing poor psychological wellbeing because its effects can have a long-term impact on their development and life chances. By supporting them, we can help them deal better with issues that are causing them problems at home, at school, and in their relationships with friends and family.

How can we help them maintain psychological wellbeing?

Most children are surrounded by a community of people – family, friends, babysitters, carers, teachers, and other professionals such as school nurses – who can all keep an eye out for any warning signs and generally support a child’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

By ensuring a child enjoys positive and rewarding relationships throughout their community, we can help them maintain good psychological wellbeing. Ways in which we can support children include:

  • Listen: Ask children how they are and about any worries they have. Take what they say seriously. Make sure that conversations about feelings and emotions feel as normal and routine as possible.
  • Support: If a child seems to be having difficulties, try to help them cope and call on the support of others (for example, their teachers) as needed.
  • Encourage: Be interested in what a child enjoys, whether that’s sport or other hobbies. Talk to them about what’s important to them and show your support.

If you are concerned about any persistent change in a child’s behaviour, speak to others in their community and discuss any issues with a doctor.

Healthy living

All children will benefit from a generally healthy lifestyle that supports their physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. This can include:

  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Keeping physically active
  • Having time and the opportunity to play indoors and outdoors
  • Taking part in activities in the local community and with friends
  • Being within a supportive family where they feel safe and are supported in their choices

Where to get support

Parents, families, friends, teachers, and health professionals such as a specialist in child mental health can all help to support children who may be at risk of poor psychological wellbeing.

One of the most important ways in which parents can support their children is to listen to them and take their feelings seriously. Parents can call on support from others if they feel their child is distressed for a long period of time, if those feelings are affecting the child’s day-to-day enjoyment of life, or if their behaviour is affecting family life.

Parents who are concerned about their child’s mental health may find it helpful to discuss their experiences with other family members, friends, and the child’s wider circle to find out whether they have also become aware of any behavioural changes. The changes can then be discussed with the child’s doctor.

The doctor may arrange a referral to a psychologist or counsellor for an assessment of the child’s mental and emotional health and to arrange any support or treatment needed. This may include individual or family therapy, or help from the child’s school or community programmes designed to support young people. A speech therapist might also be able to help with any developmental issues.

Scientific studies

Research is underway into the role of the gut microbiota (the ecosystem of microorganisms within the gastrointestinal tract) as a modulator of brain and behaviour. It is thought that periods of change in the microbiota coincide with the development of other body systems and particularly the brain and the microbiota–gut–brain axis. Because of this, researchers have investigated the possibility of developing novel microbiota-modulating strategies in early life to support neurodevelopment.

The effects of ‘toxic stress’ (for example, when a child experiences physical or emotional abuse) have also been shown to disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems and increase the risk of stress-related disease and cognitive impairment. Toxic stress in childhood may lead to developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression.

Extensive research suggests that nurturing, responsive, and reliable relationships can help to heal young children who have experienced neglect.

Referenced sources

  1.  Flannery JE, Stagaman K, Burns AR et al. Gut feelings begin in childhood: the gut metagenome correlates with early environment, caregiving, and behavior. mBio. 2020;11(1):e02780-19. doi:10.1128/mBio.02780-19
  2.  Ronan V, Yeasin R, Claud EC. Childhood Development and the Microbiome-The Intestinal Microbiota in Maintenance of Health and Development of Disease During Childhood Development. Gastroenterology. 2021;160(2):495-506. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2020.08.065
  3.  Kurlansik SL, Maffei MS. Somatic Symptom Disorder. Am Fam Physician. 2016;93(1):49-54.
  4.  Cowan CSM, Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Annual research review: critical windows – the microbiota–gut–brain axis in neurocognitive development. Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2020;61(3):353-371. doi:10.1111/jcpp.13156
  5.  Borre YE, O’Keeffe GW, Clarke G, Stanton C, Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Microbiota and neurodevelopmental windows: implications for brain disorders. Trends Mol Med. 2014;20(9):509-518. doi:10.1016/j.molmed.2014.05.002
  6.  Toxic stress. Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. Accessed February 2021. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/
  7.  The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain: Working Paper 12. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. 2012. Accessed February 2021. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/the-science-of-neglect-the-persistent-absence-of-responsive-care-disrupts-the-developing-brain
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