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Where a child or young person is in severe or ongoing distress and the role of parent / caregiver

Some activities that will help children and young people cope and support good mental wellbeing.
© Public Health England

Coping techniques and activities to promote mental wellbeing

As well as calming techniques where a child presents as distressed, it can be helpful to recommend some activities that will help children and young people cope and support good mental wellbeing. Some of these are individual activities, but in many cases you can link with social support as well.

For younger children, activities such as playing or drawing, or the use of a comfort blanket or toy, can support coping. More information about supporting children in stressful situations can be found here, and a parents guide to supporting young people with anxiety is here.

If they do not have something they normally use, suggest activities designed to help them relax or focus on the present; connecting with others; talking about worries; physical activity; keeping the mind active through puzzles or quizzes; getting outside or bringing nature in, for example through watching birds. If passing time with children, try to involve them in play activities or simple conversation about their interests.

For older children and young people, they are usually their own expert on how they cope best. Ask what the child or young person would normally do to calm down or make themselves feel better and see if they might be able to use that technique in the current situation. Older children and teenagers can often help in crisis situations. Finding safe ways for them to contribute may help them to feel more in control.

Supporting a child or young person to avoid negative coping strategies

Remember that children and young people have their own ways of coping. Ask what these are, and support positive coping strategies, while helping them to avoid negative coping strategies. Suggest positive behaviors that support mental wellbeing such as:

‘Feeling anxious or worried can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. Good-quality sleep makes a big difference to how you feel mentally and physically, so it’s important to get rest when you can. Try to maintain regular sleeping patterns and keep good sleep hygiene practices – like avoiding screens before bed, cutting back on caffeine and creating a restful environment.’

‘24-hour news and constant social media updates can make you more worried. If it is affecting you, try to limit the time you spend watching, reading, or listening to media coverage of the event. It may help to only check the news at set times or limiting to a couple of checks a day.’

‘Playing and exercising. Filling your time with hobbies and play can be relaxing and help to distract thoughts. Getting at least one hour’s exercise every day is recommended for mental and physical health, if possible getting outside and spending time in the park or garden.’

Where caregiver or parent is not present / able to support

If the parent/ caregiver is unwell, injured, extremely upset or otherwise cannot care for their children, you can arrange to get help such as the local child safeguarding team, or the police. If you need support with child safeguarding, you could contact the police, your local safeguarding team, a teacher or health professional.

If children have been separated from their parents/carers (due to the emergency or crisis), it is important to try to reunite them and enable them to be together if possible. For example, if the caregiver is being cared for in a hospital, try to keep the children with them or take down the details of where the caregiver is being taken so they can be reunited.

© Public Health England
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Psychological First Aid: Supporting Children and Young People

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