By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Teenage girl catching netball

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Every year in Australia, about 15% of young people aged 12-17 years experience a mental health problem.
  • In 2004-05, 10% of children aged 10-14 years were reported to have some form of mental or behavioural problem.
  • A mental health problem can be more serious for young people who are still developing than for people later in life.

Mental health is an essential part of wellbeing, and there’s a lot you can do to promote mental health for your child. It also helps to know what to do if you think your child has a mental health problem.

What is mental health?

Mental health is a way of describing social and emotional wellbeing. Good mental health is central to your child’s healthy development. It is associated with:

  • feeling happy and positive about yourself and enjoying life
  • healthy relationships with family and friends
  • participation in physical activity and eating a healthy diet
  • the ability to relax and to get a good night’s sleep
  • community participation and belonging.

We need good mental health to build strong relationships, adapt to change and deal with life’s challenges.

It’s thought that adolescence is an especially risky period for mental health problems. On top of environment and genes, teenagers go through many changes and challenges in a short period of time. This all happens while teenage brains are still maturing.

Promoting good mental health in adolescence

Studies show a strong link between the quality of parent–teenager relationships and young people’s mental health. Healthy family relationships might reduce the chances of your child experiencing mental health problems.

Your support can have a direct and positive impact on your child’s mental health. Here are some ideas to promote your child’s mental health and wellbeing:

  • Show love, affection and care for your child.
  • Show that you’re interested in what is happening in your child’s life. Praise his good points and achievements, and value his ideas.
  • Enjoy spending time together one-on-one with your child, and also as a family.
  • Be there for your child. Encourage your child to talk about feelings with you. It’s important for your child to feel she doesn’t have to go through things on her own, and that you can work together to find solutions to problems.
  • Deal with problems as they arise, rather than letting them build up.
  • Talk to family members, friends, other parents or teachers if you have any concerns. If you feel you need more help, speak to your GP or another health professional.

Physical health is related to mental health. To help your child stay emotionally and physically healthy, encourage your child to do the following:

  • Keep active – physical fitness will help your child stay healthy, have more energy, feel confident, manage stress and sleep well.
  • Develop and maintain healthy eating habits.
  • Get lots of regular sleep. Quality sleep will help your child to manage a busy life, stress and responsibilities. For more information, you can read our article on sleep for children: 12-15 years.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol.

Alcohol and drugs
As children go through adolescence, they might experiment with alcohol and drugs. These are a major risk factors for the development of mental health problems in some young people. These substances can also make existing problems worse. You should encourage your child to avoid drugs, and be careful not to provide opportunities for him to drink alcohol.

Alcohol and drug use might also alert you to a possible mental health problem for your child. If you know your child is using drugs or alcohol and you’re worried, talk with your child. Also consider speaking to a health professional or counsellor.

Signs your child might need help

It’s normal for children and teenagers to sometimes have low moods, poor motivation and trouble with sleeping. It’s not always the sign of a mental health problem. But if you do notice any of the following signs and they persist for more than a few weeks, it’s important to talk with your child. The next step is to get professional help.

For children younger than 11 years, warning signs might include:

  • seeming sad or unhappy much of the time
  • a drop in school performance
  • ongoing worries or fears
  • problems fitting in at school or getting along with other children
  • aggressive or consistently disobedient behaviour, or repeated temper tantrums
  • sleep problems, including nightmares.

For children 11 years and older, watch out for your child:

  • seeming down, feeling things are hopeless, being tearful or lacking motivation
  • having trouble coping with everyday activities
  • showing sudden changes in behaviour, often for no obvious reason
  • having trouble eating or sleeping
  • dropping school performance, or suddenly refusing to go to school
  • avoiding friends or social contact
  • making comments about physical pain (for example, headache, tummy ache or backache)
  • being aggressive or antisocial – for example, missing school or stealing
  • being very anxious about weight or physical appearance, weight loss, or failing to gain weight as she grows.
If your child tells you he is having persistent thoughts about hurting himself or that he wants to die, seek urgent professional help. Lifeline (13 11 14) provides a 24-hour phone counselling service. You can also call 000 or go straight to a hospital emergency department.

Talking with your child about mental health

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, start by talking to your child. This might feel uncomfortable – you might even be waiting for the problem to go away. But talking to your child about how she’s feeling shows her she’s not alone and that you care. Also, your child will need your help to access professional support.

Here are some ideas to encourage your child to talk to you about how he’s feeling:

  • Say that even adults have problems they can’t sort out on their own. Point out that it’s easier to get help when you have someone else’s support.
  • Acknowledge that opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can be scary.
  • Tell your child that talking about a problem can often help put things into perspective and make feelings clearer. Someone with more or different experience – like an adult – might be able to suggest options your child hasn’t considered.
  • Suggest some other people your child could talk to if she doesn’t want to talk to you – for example, aunts or uncles, close family friends, a trusted sports coach or religious leader, or your GP. You could also suggest a confidential telephone counselling service for young people such as Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or visiting Kids Helpline.
  • Let your child know that talking with a GP is confidential. The GP can’t tell anyone else, unless the GP is worried about your child’s or someone else’s safety.
  • Emphasise that your child isn’t alone. You’ll be there whenever he’s ready to talk.

If you raise your concerns with your child, she might refuse any help or deny there’s anything wrong. Many young people won’t seek help themselves. So you might need to say that you’re worrried about her and you’ll be trying to get professional advice. It’s a good idea to encourage your child to come with you. If she won’t, you might need to go on your own.

If you’re not sure what to do, a GP or school counsellor is a good place to start.

Poor mental health is no one’s fault, and no one is to blame.

Getting help for your child

Mental health problems are unlikely to get better on their own, so you need to get professional help as soon as possible. Poor mental health or unmanaged mental health problems can affect your child’s quality of life, physical health, schoolwork, relationships and development – social, physical, educational and vocational.

There are many professional support options, including:

  • your GP
  • school counsellors
  • psychologists and counsellors
  • your local community health centre
  • local mental health services.

You might also find support at:

If you’re unsure where to go, your GP will be able to guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.

Mental disorders

If your child’s mental health problems are interfering significantly with his life, a qualified professional might diagnose a mental disorder.

You can read more about how to recognise adolescent mental health problems and disorders and seek help in the following articles:

Helping your child with a diagnosed mental disorder

Once you’ve sought professional medical help for your child, many things can show your child you are there for her.

Your child’s mental health management strategy will depend on his specific needs. But in general, the most important thing you can do is show through your words and actions that you accept and love your child, whatever he’s feeling*:

  • Listen when your child is ready to talk. Listen without offering opinions or solutions straight away. Be available, but don’t push her to talk if she’s not ready.
  • Let your child know that it’s OK to feel whatever he’s feeling. Even if you don’t understand why something is upsetting him, acknowledge that his feelings are real and valid.
  • Encourage your child to talk to someone that she trusts. If it helps, set up times and places for your child to talk to this person, and transport your child to the meetings if necessary.
  • Praise your child for his achievements, however small.
  • Reduce family conflict as much as possible.
  • Speak with your child’s health professional about support options in your local area.
  • Recognise when you need help. You can fully support your child only if you’re healthy and supported yourself.

* Adapted from Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing (2004), Supporting parents and families: the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.