Child Mental Health Difficulties are rising at an alarming rate. What can we do to slow it down? (Guest post)

An SEMH school leader, Graham Chatterley has become a regular guest-blogger for Axcis. In this post, he discusses the rising issue of child mental health difficulties and what can be done to help our young people before it’s too late.

When the intervention is too late

Graham Chatterley giving a presentation at a recent event

I’ve said many times that the sooner we can get a child into our SEMH setting, the higher the chance we can engage them, repair some of the (emotional) damage and equip those children for a more positive future. Having a child start with us at age 15 gives us little opportunity to influence change for them and we can do nothing more than helping them to get a few qualifications.

When it’s just in time

It is common for the transition to secondary school to be the point at which things become too much for many of our children. They leave the more nurturing, close knit, smaller pool of staff in a primary setting and move into a huge arena of different adults, personalities and a multitude of other children and it becomes too much to cope with. When children come to us at age 11/12, they will often still remember when school was a more positive experience. We have a better chance to rebuild self-esteem and confidence and have a positive impact on that child.

A better time

The bottom line is that the earlier we receive a child, the greater the opportunity we have to help repair any trauma that the child has experienced. It doesn’t need to be rushed or forced – and because of this even more success can usually be seen. Sometimes we can even turn that child around and get them successfully ready to return to a mainstream setting. However, even though this is viewed as success, it must still be remembered that the child has experienced trauma and must continue to receive support.

At a time when child mental health difficulties are skyrocketing. What is causing it? What is being done to prevent it or at least slow it down?

Mental Health referrals for under 11s are up by a third compared to 2 years ago. This is a scary increase and for a setting like ours where the youngest child is 8, we are having to react to a huge national issue.

As part of my outreach work,  I am now liaising more and more with nurseries and key stage 1 settings. Staff at these settings are increasingly struggling to manage the volume of children showing signs of early trauma, and many (staff) lack the skills and training to cope with such children.


What is the reason for this?


Are more children now suffering neglect?


In my opinion, yes they are, but not physical neglect. Although there are definitely more children on the poverty line who are struggling to have their basic needs met – and this is contributing in some cases and is partly attributable to the increase in referrals, the neglect is more often emotional and in many cases it isn’t malicious. It comes from ignorance and a lack of understanding of how damaging it can be.


It comes from a lack of understanding of how a child’s brain develops and how much damage a lack of interaction can cause. I firmly believe that there are so many parents who are unwittingly causing their child trauma by ignoring them while they are on their phones or laptops or occupying children with technology instead of interacting, bonding and teaching them important things like how to regulate their body and emotions. These children are clean, well fed and live in nice houses but their brains aren’t growing as they should be because their needs for interaction, bonding and attunement aren’t being met. This results in a child who fears physical contact, who can’t self-regulate or calm down and who has massive struggles socially and fitting in.

Myth – ‘A quiet baby means they are happy!’

Not necessarily. A quiet baby can mean they have given up trying to get attention and interaction and this can be extraordinarily damaging. When that baby does not have their emotional needs met it can have a lasting impact. They grow up wondering why they weren’t worthy of love and attention. They grow up with brain deficiencies and without all of the tools needed to navigate their way through life.


So, if we can intervene at reception or nursery age, we stand more chance of repairing the damage. We can meet that need for understanding and becoming comfortable with physical contact and repair this fear. We can teach a child to better regulate their emotions and we can improve their social skills. Most importantly, we can build self-esteem up at a point in their lives before education has become about repeated failure. This has to be a good thing but it takes time, it takes resources and it takes very skilled educators. It also usually has to be done at a time when they are falling behind academically (because that’s when “issues” are more likely to be identified) which brings with it its own challenges, especially if developmental damage has already been done.


Again though, it is being reactive and it is trying to repair damage that has already been done. Can’t we just for once be pro-active?

The best time

Before writing this, I spoke to everyone I know who is due to have or has recently had a baby about what advice and knowledge they have been given regarding caring for their baby – and there was plenty. I am not criticising midwives and health visitors. Those new parents knew lots about nutrition, feeding, changing and basic care needs. They all knew the benefits of interacting with respect to bonding and communication and why they should do it.


Sometimes though, just knowing that we probably should do something puts us in a position of complacency. When tired and stressed it’s easy to become a bit lax. However in amongst the guidance and information they had been given, none of them knew to what extent they could damage to their baby if they don’t interact with them enough. For example:


  • They didn’t know that the brain does 80% of its growing in the first 3 years of life.
  • They didn’t know that just as with walking, talking and toilet training, the caregiver must also teach the baby to regulate their ability to calm down and self soothe – otherwise the child will be constantly in a state of stress and alarm.
  • They didn’t know that if babies don’t learn that touch is a pleasurable experience then they will fear physical contact and struggle socially and not know how to play with others, because they have never learned that touch is meant to be a pleasurable experience.
  • They didn’t know that without enough attention the baby’s brain won’t grow! The thinking part of the brain will not develop the same as other children. Impulse control, ability to calm down, memory retention and ability to learn will all be significantly damaged.



If this information was given to them, then I would like to think that they would get off the devices more, interact better and play more. Therefore going some way to put a halt to this alarming rise in children who are showing signs of emotional neglect. Even if a small percentage of parents were shocked into action then the impact could be huge. I spoke to one parent who is due her second baby any day now and her other daughter is 1. She hadn’t been given this information but she remembered me showing her a 3 minute video called the ‘still face experiment’ about how not interacting with baby quickly causes distress. That video impacted her so much that she went from being on the phone regularly to it only coming out when that child is asleep. Now, I’m sure she would have been a great parent anyway but having that information in the back of her mind made her an even better one! If this vital information was a big part of pre and antenatal care it could make such a difference. I am convinced that if parents knew the extent to which they could damage their children just by being lax in their parenting and not as emotionally available as possible then we could get a lot to change.



I work with many parents who can’t put their children 1st and this won’t change them. However I also work with many more who just weren’t aware of the damage they were doing. If we can help them by linking services, being proactive and informing them of potential harm, then surely that makes sense.


Graham Chatterley



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