Understanding children’s emotions
General practitioners are uniquely placed to support children’s mental health and development. No other health professional has the same kind of ongoing relationship and level of intimate knowledge of a family’s health. But with this insight, comes responsibility to act when things aren’t going well.
Most of the time, children display what are considered ‘normal’ emotional responses to situations: anger when something doesn’t go their way, sadness when dealing with grief, anxiety when they are going through a difficult situation. This helps children to form who they are and is a healthy part of childhood.
However, children who suffer as a result of these emotions are thought to have more significant mental health concerns. It is crucial these children are not only detected when they present to your practice, but supported, listened to and given follow up care.
This sort of work doesn’t need to be complicated: small simple changes to your everyday practice can go a long way in improving the lives of children who are struggling. I have recently worked with Emerging Minds on a new online training program to improve GPs’ confidence in this area.
A GP framework for child mental health assessment (5-12 years) combines video demonstrations, animations, self-assessments and practice tips in one interactive, easy to understand package. Accredited by RACGP, ACRRM and GPMHSC, the course introduces four key phases for GPs to consider in their work with children and families: Connect, Explore, Plan and Collaborate, and provides guidance around various options for planning treatment.
Many GPs are hesitant to perform mental health care assessments on children, perhaps out of concern that children should not be labelled with a mental health condition, or uncertainty over Medicare requirements. It is important to understand, however, that children can and do have diagnosable mental health disorders. The long delays in seeing child psychiatrists or paediatricians means that some of this responsibility needs to fall back to the GP. A child mental health care plan can provide added support to families who are often also struggling financially or cannot afford the long wait times for public sector services.
Mental health is something that all people have, from infants right through to adults. Every child is unique, with their own strengths and vulnerabilities, but children are particularly vulnerable to the influences of their social, biological and environmental worlds. GPs have an essential role to play in understanding children’s emotions, and recognising the challenges children face and the right time and type of support to provide. The earlier the intervention, the easier the child’s life will become.