New app teaches parents about 'emotional health issues' as over half of 4-7 year olds struggling

Parent child emotional health. (Getty Images)
Would you use an app to help improve your child's emotional health? (Getty Images)

More than half of four-seven year olds are struggling with emotional health problems, according to new research. This includes concerns over anxiety (46%), neurodevelopmental conditions (32%), and low mood (29%).

Two thirds (69%) of parents said their child has emotional challenges like identifying or defining their feelings, communicating how they feel, or managing them in unfamiliar situations, the survey by Embers the Dragon unearths, a new app funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to build emotional resilience in children and families.

Some 51% surveyed also said behaviour was a cause of concern for this age group and they were worried about how to manage it.

With one in six children being diagnosed with a mental health condition in the UK, early intervention is key, including with emotional issues, but this is often made hard by strict eligibility for specialist care and long waiting lists for support services.

"Understanding and supporting children's emotional development can be a complex and challenging task for parents and caregivers. Feelings aren’t things you can see or touch, they vary between people, over time and in different situations," explains Emma Taylor, mental health NHS nurse specialist and co-founder of Embers.

"The problem is that this sort of decoding skill isn’t something we are necessarily born with, and sometimes for a whole range of reasons related to our own history, personality types and life circumstances, it can be surprisingly difficult to learn.

"There is a need for accessible and clinically endorsed support, especially in the digital age, to help parents navigate these challenges and foster healthy emotional development in children from a young age."

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Want to take part in a major clinical trial? (Getty Images)

Embers the Dragon is currently available under a major clinical trial run by the School of Applied Sciences at London South Bank University.

Parents or carers of four-seven year olds are eligible to take part as well as primary schools who can take part in the school programme. It is hoped that after a successful trial, the app will be made officially available to the public as a prescribing tool for the NHS and as a tool for schools.

  • The app can be prescribed as an eight week course, but parents can complete modules in their own time, repeat where necessary or complete out of order to follow their own needs

  • Parents complete 11 modules utilising social learning theory to cover positive behaviour support, building parent child interactions and ignoring and consequences. Additional topics around common parenting challenges include fussy eating, sleep and bereavement

  • Children learn alongside the animated characters, and the concepts are reinforced through off-screen games, reward systems and lesson plans

  • Parents, educators and carers access supporting content and information that enables them to contribute to their children’s wellbeing and monitor outcomes

  • All content is rooted in self-determination theory and social learning theory, which is the NICE recommended approach

Recruitment is open now here, and the trial starts in June, though people can join throughout the summer. The trial will run until mid 2025.

Mother and daughter using a digital tablet together. They are sitting on the sofa at home. The daughter is sitting on his mothers lap. Very hapy and smiling. Close up with Tight crop
People are often divided over the use of technology for children, but it can help to aid learning. (Getty Images)

"Whilst we often think of digital as a new age evil it also presents lots of potential opportunities for support at scale. The science behind Embers the dragon, social learning theory, has been a first line treatment in the NHS for many years but by making it digital we can increase access, reducing the wait for support and normalising mental health development," says Taylor.

So while better access to services may be more ideal, it seems tech is helping to offer a solution in the meantime.

Mental health, girl and window for stress, thinking and depressed in home. Depression, black child and unhappy looking sad, anxiety and frustrated with suffering, disappointed and foster female kid.
There are things to help improve your child's emotional and mental health. (Getty Images)

Taylor says a number of factors are behind this.

"Children are facing more and more stressors than previous years with increased awareness of global issues, increased impact of family stress such as the cost of living crisis and parental anxiety is also high with influences such as social media and the perception of the perfect parent," she explains.

"COVID has also played a massive role, especially in young children who lost out on key development opportunities due to lock down and therefore are understandably slightly behind in their emotional development."

"We know from decades of research that the earlier we learn to recognise emotions, how they feel in our body and how to manage them, the better it is for our long term health as if we can learn how to manage and communicate how we are feeling early, we can prevent it building into more significant concerns in later life."

Adorable Asian young son drawing picture on paper with parent in house. Happy family activity, Little baby boy children learn how to paint artwork enjoy creativity with mother in living room at home.
A little fun play with your child can go a long way. (Getty Images)

"Ultimately children don't come with an instruction manual. Children communicate predominantly through behaviour so sometimes children get labelled as naughty children when they are just trying to communicate something isn't working for them. The hard thing for us as parents is to know what they are trying to communicate and how we can help them right now whilst also teaching them how to help themselves in the future," says Taylor.

"There is lots of guidance for parents on how to help children develop language and maths skills but there isn't much on how to help your children develop emotional skills and that's what Embers does."

So aside from trying out the app, Taylor suggests, "My top tips for parents is that children learn predominantly from seeing behaviours and copying them so practise self care and talk to your child about why you are doing it.

"Play is also really important for developing children's emotional skills and just 10 mins of dedicated play a day can make a massive difference. If you’re not sure what kind of activities you could include there are lots of suggestions on our Instagram."

It's of course important to remember that some emotional struggles for children are expected at this age.

"Happy days, sad days, clingy days, temper tantrums and changeable emotions are all completely normal for young children! Good emotional health doesn't mean a child should be happy all the time," says Taylor.

"However, what we are starting to look for is that children respond well to strategies that can help them to calm down and that they are showing lots of prosocial behaviours like sharing, turn taking, following instructions (to an extent) without it causing behaviours of concern, and that they can begin to label different emotions and how they feel in their body (although this might be reflective rather than in the immediate moment)."