Know your own children? Not well enough

Parents are often wide of the mark when it comes to their youngsters’ fears
  • @emilydugan

A growing “worry gap” between the problems children actually face and the issues that most concern their parents could be putting young people at risk, experts warned last night.

Most parents of primary school children choose “traditional” concerns such as stranger-danger or bullying when asked what most worries them about youngsters’   well-being, polling seen by The IoS shows. Yet records from the charity ChildLine show their most common calls from children relate to depression, self-harm or thoughts of suicide.

More than half of all parents polled by YouGov for the helpline picked stranger-danger as an issue that worried them, while two-thirds chose bullying. Yet fewer than one in five parents identified mental health as something they would worry about with a child – despite it being the most common thing for which children seek help.

Of ChildLine’s 1.5 million phone calls and online counselling sessions last year, more than 42,000 related to mental health problems, suicidal thoughts or self-harm.

Esther Rantzen, the charity’s founder, said: “It’s really important for us to hear the message that’s coming from young people who ring ChildLine. The fact is that unhappiness of this seriousness has not been on our agenda as parents and we need to take time to see what our children’s attitude to life is.”

Mental health-related issues are also among the fastest growing concerns for UK youngsters. In 2012 more than 16,000 children called ChildLine about self-harm, up 68 per cent on the previous year. There were 12,000 calls about suicide, an annual increase of 39 per cent, and 14,000 calls about depression and mental health, up 19 per cent.

Siobhan Freegard, the founder of the parenting website Netmums, said: “We see it here at Netmums, that when parents start noticing mental health problems it actually seems quite late. Because we’re not so aware of it and it’s not on our list of key worries it seems to me we don’t pick it up early enough, and by the time we’re aware it’s often fully entrenched.

“It’s still a bit of a taboo that your child could have a mental health problem. People need to realise that this absolutely could be my child.”

Parents did not identify the impact of troublesome family relationships as a major worry, but this was the second most common source of concern for children and young people seeking help from ChildLine. Almost 40,000 phone and online counselling sessions by the charity last year were about family relationship issues, such as parents getting divorced.

Peter Liver, director of ChildLine, said: “There have been notable changes in the problems children contact us about since ChildLine launched in 1986. Originally, sexual abuse was the major issue but now the pendulum is swinging towards family problems, self-harm and suicide. We know from polls of parents that they are still having more traditional conversations with their children about issues such as stranger-danger, which is great, but are unlikely to speak to them about emerging issues like self-harm.”

He added: “It can be hard for parents to keep up and I think it’s easier to understand more traditional issues as we’ve been through them ourselves or were warned about them by our own parents.”

Mothers and fathers are not entirely out of touch, however. One in 10 ChildLine counselling sessions – more than 30,000 – related to bullying and around 16,000, or 5 per cent, of their counselling sessions were about sexual abuse.

Two-fifths of parents were worried about their children accessing pornography – though this did not feature in the top 10 worries of children contacting the charity.