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How to support a child with mental health issues

Foster parents play a critical role in providing a supportive environment for children with mental health issues. Sadly, the likelihood of young people having a mental health issue has increased by 50% over the last 3 years, with children in care being more vulnerable to developing complex mental health needs. This is due to the trauma and instability they’ve experienced in their early life. Mental health disorders can manifest in different ways, and it is essential for foster parents to understand the different types of disorders as well as the signs, so they know how to improve child mental health.

How does mental health affect child development?

Mental health plays a crucial role in a child's overall development. Mental health issues can have a significant impact on a child's cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral development. Here are some ways in how mental health affects child development.

Cognitive development

Mental health issues can impact a child's cognitive development by affecting their ability to concentrate, learn, and problem-solve. For example, children with ADHD may have difficulty focusing on tasks and completing them, which can affect their academic performance.

Emotional development

Mental health issues can impact a child's emotional development by affecting their ability to regulate their emotions, express their feelings, and form healthy relationships. Children with anxiety or depression may have difficulty expressing their emotions or may feel overwhelmed by their feelings, which can impact their ability to form close relationships with others.

Social development

Mental health issues can affect a child’s ability to interact with others, form friendships, and develop social skills. For example, children with ASC may have difficulty understanding social cues and may struggle to form social connections with peers.

Behavioral development

Mental health issues can impact a child's behavioral development by affecting their ability to regulate their behavior, follow rules, and form healthy habits. For example, children with conduct disorder may exhibit aggressive or violent behavior, which can lead to problems in school and with peers.

Physical health

Mental health issues can also impact a child's physical health by affecting their sleep, appetite, and physical activity levels. For example, children with anxiety or depression may have trouble sleeping or experience a lack of appetite, which can cause problems with their physical health. A balanced diet and regular exercise help the brain stay healthy, so if the brain isn’t getting the right nutrients, mental health can further be exacerbated.

How to explain mental health to a child

Explaining mental health to a child can be challenging, but it is important to help them understand the importance of taking care of their mental health. One way to explain mental health is to compare it to physical health. Just as we take care of our bodies by eating healthy foods and exercising, we also need to take care of our minds by engaging in activities that promote positive emotions and seeking help when we are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing poor mental health. It can also be helpful to use age-appropriate language and examples that the child can relate to, such as talking about how we feel when we are scared or sad, and how we can cope with these emotions in healthy ways. Overall, it’s important to emphasise that mental health is just as important as physical health, and that seeking help when needed is a sign of strength and courage.

A Foster Parent’s Guide to Complex Needs

Download our guide, Disability and Mental Health: A Foster Parent’s Guide to Complex Needs to learn more about supporting children with additional needs.


Signs of mental health issues in young people

As a parent, it is important to be aware of the signs that may indicate that your child is experiencing mental health issues. Here are some common signs to look out for:

  • Changes in behavior, such as becoming more withdrawn or aggressive.
  • Difficulty managing emotions, such as frequent outbursts of anger or sadness.
  • Difficulty sleeping or changes in their sleep patterns, such as insomnia or sleeping too much, could be a sign of mental health issues.
  • Changes in appetite and eating habits, such as eating more or less than usual, eating in private or going to the bathroom after meals.
  • Withdrawing from social activities or avoiding spending time with friends and family.
  • Difficulty concentrating or being easily distracted.
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue.

It is important to note that these signs may also be indicative of other issues, and it is important to consult with your supervising support worker and a mental health professional for an accurate diagnosis. If you are concerned about your child's mental health, talk to their doctor or seek out a for guidance and support. Early intervention and treatment can help children manage their mental health issues and lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

How to support my child’s mental health

As a foster parent, you’ll want to ensure the child in your care gets to experience a semblance of a normal childhood, which involves being happy, carefree and joyful. It’s so heartbreaking to see a young person struggle with themselves and the world around them, especially when you know they’ve already gone through so much hardship, but there are things you can do to support a child with mental health issues.

Educate yourself

The first step in supporting a child with mental health issues is to educate yourself about their disorder. Learn about the symptoms, triggers, and treatments for the disorder to better understand what the child is experiencing. We offer our foster parents specialist training programmes to expand their knowledge and skillset around child development and how to support a child with mental health issues.

Provide a safe and supportive environment

Children with mental health issues may feel anxious or overwhelmed in new environments. Foster parents can provide a safe and supportive environment by creating consistent routines and structure. They can also establish clear boundaries and rules to help the child feel safe and secure. The things you do as a family will also play a big role in the improvement of their mental health, such as eating healthily, staying active and encouraging them to do the same.

Encourage open communication

Encouraging open communication is essential in supporting a child with mental health issues. Foster parents can create a safe space for the child to express their feelings and concerns. They can also listen actively and provide validation and empathy to help the child feel understood. The key is to be patient and go at the child’s pace. As long as they know they can turn to you in times of need, that is what’s important.

Advocate for the child

Foster parents should be an advocate for their foster child by communicating with their social worker, school, and mental health professionals to ensure that the child's needs are being met. Attending meetings and appointments with the child to provide support and advocate for their best interests is also important.

Seek support

When caring for a child with mental health issues, the support a foster parent receives plays a huge role in the outcome of that child. The more support on offer, the better chance that child has at healing and making positive steps forward. At Fostering People, our foster parents receive exceptional support from a dedicated team of professionals who work closely together to make sure the child is getting the right care and treatment. There’s also a 24/7 helpline for emergencies or out-of-hours support, because we know fostering isn’t a 9-5 job.

Encourage self-care

Encouraging self-care is essential in supporting a child with mental health issues. Teach them about healthy eating, encourage exercise and practice mindfulness together to instill a routine of healthy behaviours. Think about their social life too – are they playing with friends, or are they isolating themselves? If they’re withdrawing from socialisation, try to introduce activities back into their routine by starting small, such as inviting one of their friends over for dinner one day after school. Or get the whole family outside in nature and away from phone screens to promote positive, healthy habits that can keep your mental health in check.

Access therapy services

Working with mental health professionals is crucial in supporting a child with mental health issues. Foster parents can collaborate with therapists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals to develop a treatment plan that meets the child's needs. We have a therapeutic approach to foster care here at Fostering People, which includes providing access to a specialist therapist who can give professional guidance and counselling to some of our young people.

Stay compassionate

Children with mental health disorders might display challenging behaviour, such as being oppositional, withdrawn, angry or self-destructive. Foster parents should remain compassionate and show the child they are still loved despite how they’re expressing their feelings. They need to know they have a loving guardian in their corner that won’t give up on them.

Could you support a vulnerable child?

Children with mental health issues need a loving family to support them and nurture them towards a positive, happy future. Love, compassion and stability from a suitable foster home can be the foundation they need to thrive. If you want to know more about becoming a foster parent, please get in touch today.


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