Children’s mental health: what it is and why it matters
Mental health is the way children think and feel about themselves and the world around them. It affects how children cope with life’s challenges and stresses.
What good mental health in children looks like
Children with good mental health feel loved, safe and secure in their environments. They also feel happy and positive about themselves most of the time.
They’re kind to themselves during tough times or when things don’t go the way they expect. This means they feel OK about trying new or challenging things.
They enjoy life, learn well and get along well with family and friends.
And they can manage sad, worrying or angry feelings and bounce back from tough times.
Good mental health is an important part of healthy child development. It helps children build positive social, emotional, behaviour, thinking and communication skills. It also lays the foundation for better mental health and wellbeing later in life.
Relationships and good mental health for children
A positive relationship with you directly and positively affects your child’s mental health.
Here are ideas to promote your child’s mental health and wellbeing through a loving and supportive relationship:
- Tell your child that you love them, no matter what. You can also show love through your body language and nonverbal communication – for example, making eye contact, giving a hug or smiling at your child.
- Use a positive, constructive and consistent approach to guide your child’s behaviour. This means giving your child praise and attention when they behave well, rather than negative consequences when they behave in challenging ways.
- Make time each day to talk and listen to your child. If your child wants to talk, try to stop what you’re doing and give them your full attention.
- Enjoy time with your child doing activities they like. This could be reading together, kicking a ball, drawing, playing board games and so on.
- Have regular family meals. Eating together can strengthen your relationship with your child, give your child a sense of stability and connectedness, and have a positive effect on their development. It might also encourage your child to eat well too.
- Work on positive ways to solve problems and manage conflict between you and your partner, with your child and among other family members.
- Encourage your child to connect with others in the community – for example, waving and chatting to neighbours, attending local festivals or helping out at a community garden. This gives your child a stronger sense of their place in the world and helps them learn how to relate to different people.
Emotions and good mental health for children
Children experience all sorts of emotions as part of growing up – fear, disappointment, sadness, anxiety, anger, joy, hope and so on. When children cope with big emotions or calm themselves down in difficult or emotional situations, they’re likely to feel good about themselves.
Here are ways you can help your child learn to manage emotions:
- Talk about emotions with your child, and encourage them to recognise and label their emotions. You can also let your child know that it’s natural to have all sorts of feelings. For example, ‘It looks like you’re really frustrated that your toy won’t work. I can understand that’.
- Role-model a positive outlook for your child – for example, ‘Running all the way around the oval looks hard, but I think I can do it if I take it slow and steady’, or ‘I’m disappointed that my cake didn’t cook properly, but that’s OK – I’ll try it again another time’.
- Support your child when something is bothering them. For example, if your child is having trouble with friends at school, you could give your child plenty of hugs and reassure them that you’re there for them. And you could work with the teacher on a plan to handle the situation.
- Help your child learn to manage small worries so they don’t become big problems. You can do this by gently encouraging your child to do things they’re anxious about instead of avoiding scary situations. For example, ‘Have you thought about trying out for the school choir this year? You really enjoy singing’.
Behaviour, goals, skills and good mental health for children
Here are ways to promote your child’s mental health and wellbeing through a focus on behaviour:
- Have family rules about behaviour and involve your child in developing rules and consequences. Adjust the rules and consequences as your child grows. For example, you and your child might make and adjust rules about digital technology use or online behaviour. Rules and boundaries help children of all ages feel safe and secure.
- Help your child to set realistic goals for their age and abilities and work towards achieving them – for example, riding a bike without training wheels or trying to solve a difficult maths problem for school. And praise your child’s efforts to achieve the goal, rather than the goal itself.
- Help your child learn how to solve problems so that they develop the skills to do this for themselves when they’re older. For example, you can help your child work out what the problem is, brainstorm possible solutions, and choose a solution to put into action.
- Encourage your child to try new things, take age-appropriate risks, and learn from their mistakes. This could be things like entering a competition, speaking in front of the class, climbing new equipment at the playground and so on.
Good physical health and mental health for children
Good physical health is important for mental health. That’s because being fit and well helps your child have more energy, feel confident, manage stress and sleep well.
Here are ways to help your child stay physically fit and well:
- Offer healthy food and encourage healthy eating habits in your family.
- Encourage your child to try plenty of different physical activities and sports. Trying different activities is good for fitness and energy levels. It can also help children feel good about themselves as they develop new skills.
- Make sure your child gets the sleep they need. Quality sleep will help your child to manage stress and a busy life.
If you’re concerned that your child is showing signs of poor mental health, it’s best to seek professional help as soon as possible. Your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.
Looking after yourself: why it’s important to children’s mental health
Looking after yourself helps you stay physically, mentally and emotionally well. This is good for you, and it’s also very important for your child. When you’re well, you’re better able to give your child the warmth, care and attention they need to grow and thrive. You also set a good example of self-care for your child.
Looking after yourself includes:
- eating well and doing some exercise
- trying to get enough rest
- making time for things you enjoy
- keeping up with old friends or making new ones
- watching out for and managing stress, anxiety and anger
- getting support from family, friends, your community and support services.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed or you’re struggling with your mental health, parenting or relationship, getting professional support is a very good idea. You could start by talking to your GP.
Here are more ways to get support:
- Call a parenting hotline to get free parenting advice.
- Call Lifeline on 131 114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 for mental health support.
- Check Head to Health for online programs, forums and information on specific mental health topics.
- Call Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277 or Family Relationships Online on 1800 050 321 to talk to government-funded relationship counsellors.
- Call the National Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) if there are problems in your relationship like family violence, or you feel you might hurt your child.