After more than 20 years supporting vulnerable children I’m not easily shocked when it comes to some of the desperate situations many sadly face.
But I was this week left stunned by the findings of The Children’s Society’s annual Good Childhood Report. We found one in six children aged 14 reported self-harming over a 12-month period.
Nearly a quarter of girls and almost one in 10 boys said they had self-harmed in the survey of more than 11,000 children.
Based on this, we estimate that in the Yorkshire and Humber region alone, 6,320 girls and 2,720 boys aged 14 may have self-harmed. It troubles me deeply that our report found that children are unhappier now than in 2010 and that so many feel they need to self-harm. If we are to turn this worrying situation around we need to understand the causes of this unhappiness.
We have previously found that for girls especially, high intensity social media use can affect their happiness with life as a whole and with their appearance.
Yet even when this is taken into account, differences remain in how happy girls and boys are with these things. Social media may amplify other issues and insecurities and air them publicly around the clock.
We found that aspects of children’s identity like appearance and gender stereotypes could be important. We were surprised, for instance, to find that almost half of 14-year-olds who said they had been attracted to people of the same gender or both genders said they had self-harmed. It could be that they feel confused by their feelings, are being bullied because of them, or are worried about ‘coming out’.
Our separate Good Childhood Survey of 10-17-year-old children and their parents across 2,000 households found children were least happy with school and their appearance. Nearly a quarter said they heard jokes or comments about other people’s bodies or looks all of the time at school, while more than a fifth of those in secondary school said jokes or comments were often made about people’s sexual activity. Both made girls feel much worse about their appearance and less happy with their life as a whole, although this pattern did not apply to boys.
We also found that children can be harmed by gender stereotypes and pressure to live up to these expectations. Those who felt boys should be tough and girls should have nice clothes were least happy with life. The causes of children’s unhappiness are complex, but we think there are some key steps the Government could take to begin to address some of these issues.
Given the amount of time children spend at school, and our findings, we think schools are an important part of the solution.
Only about one fifth of the country would benefit from the Government’s planned pilot schemes aimed at introducing mental health support in schools and it could be years before they are rolled out. That’s why we want the Government to ensure that all secondary schools offer access to a counsellor, monitor children’s well-being and have their mental health provision assessed through Ofsted inspections.
We want issues like appearance, gender stereotypes and sexuality to be included in the new Relationships and Sex Education curriculum, due to come in by September 2020. Support for and by their families is also vital for children. Councils are struggling to fund help at an early stage, before children reach crisis point and mental health problems develop. Services like youth clubs, children’s centres and support for disabled children and young carers have become harder to deliver.
It’s vital ministers urgently address the £3bn funding shortfall the Local Government Association says is facing children’s services departments by 2025. Parents have a crucial role to play in supporting children, with our report highlighting that happiness with family relationships has the biggest positive influence on children’s well-being. Spending time with your children and just being there to talk to is really important. Sometimes teenagers don’t want to talk about what’s bothering them, but don’t be deterred. You might be able to put things in perspective, but don’t belittle their worries, and listen carefully before jumping in. Take an interest in your children’s world, be it a favourite film or website. Don’t dismiss what they are consuming, but get them to think about the messages being conveyed; for instance, whether people on reality TV reflect real life.
Finally, encourage your children to see friends outside of school and offline, exercise, read and learn new things. We have found that all these things are good for children’s well-being.
We hope the debate our report has provoked will help ensure that everyone from parents and teachers to politicians, social workers and anyone who encounters children in their daily lives pays greater attention to children’s mental health.
Above all, we want children facing these issues to know that they are not alone, and that there is always someone they can turn to.
Wayne Hoyle is Yorkshire area manager for The Children’s Society