Children’s mental health: what is it?

Mental health is the way the children think or feel about themselves and the world around them. It’s related to how children cope with life’s challenges and stresses.

What good mental health in children looks like

Children with good mental health:

  • feel happy and positive about themselves
  • enjoy life
  • learn well
  • have healthy relationships with family and friends
  • can manage sad, worrying or angry feelings
  • can bounce back from tough times.

Your child needs good mental health to develop in a healthy way socially, emotionally, mentally and physically. Good mental health in childhood also provides the foundation for better mental health and wellbeing later in life.

Promoting good mental health for children

Lots of things influence children’s mental health, including some that you can help with.

Your relationship with your child
A strong relationship with you directly and positively affects your child’s mental health.

Here are some ideas to promote your child’s mental health and wellbeing through a loving and supportive relationship:

  • Tell your child that you love him, no matter what. You can also show him love through your body language and nonverbal communication – and by giving him lots of cuddles too!
  • Praise and encourage your child when she does something well or behaves in a way that you like.
  • Make time every day to talk and listen to your child. If your child wants to talk, try to stop what you’re doing and give him your full attention.
  • Enjoy time with your child. The best way to do this is by spending time doing things that your child likes – for example, reading together, kicking a ball, drawing, playing board games and so on.
  • 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. This gives your child a stronger sense of her place in the world and helps her learn how to relate to different people.

Your child’s physical health
Physical health is a big part of mental health. That’s because physical fitness helps your child stay healthy, have more energy, feel confident, manage stress and sleep well.

Here are some ways to help your child stay emotionally and physically healthy:

  • Offer healthy food and encourage healthy eating habits in your family.
  • Encourage your child to try lots of different physical activities and sports. Trying lots of activities is good for fitness and energy levels. It can also help your child feel good about himself as he develops new skills.
  • Make sure your child gets the sleep she needs. Quality sleep will help your child to manage stress and a busy life.

Your child’s feelings
It’s normal for children to have all sorts of feelings – fear, disappointment, sadness, anxiety, anger, joy, hope and so on. When children can cope with big feelings or calm themselves down in difficult or emotional situations, they’re likely to feel good about themselves.

Here are some ways you can help your child learn to manage feelings:

  • Talk about emotions with your child, and encourage him to recognise and label his emotions. You can also let him know that most feelings are normal. 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 her. For example, if your child is having trouble with friends at school, you could give her lots of hugs and reassure her that you’re there for her. At the same time, you could work with the teacher on a plan to handle the situation.
  • Help your child manage everyday worries so they don’t become big problems. You can do this by gently encouraging your child to do things he’s anxious about without pushing him too hard. For example, ‘Have you thought about trying out for the choir at school? You sing really well’.

Your child’s behaviour
Here are some other ways to promote your child’s mental health and wellbeing.

  • Have clear rules about behaviour and involve your child in developing rules and consequences. Adjust the rules and consequences as your child grows.
  • Help your child to set realistic goals for her age and abilities and work towards achieving them – for example, riding a bike without training wheels.
  • Help your child learn how to solve problems so that he develops the skills to do this for himself when he’s 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 her mistakes. This could be things like trying a new sport, entering a drawing competition, speaking in front of her class, climbing new equipment at the playground and so on.
  • Make sure screen time doesn’t get in the way of sleep and activities that are good for your child’s development, like socialising with family and friends, being physically active, reading and being creative.

Signs your child might need help with mental health

It’s normal for children to have ups and downs that can affect the way they feel and behave. But sometimes children don’t ‘bounce back’, and the difficulties they’re facing can start to affect other aspects of their lives.

If you notice any of the following signs, and the signs go on for more than a few weeks, it’s important to talk with your child and get professional help.

Emotional and behaviour signs
Your child:

  • has repeated tantrums or consistently behaves in a defiant or aggressive way
  • seems sad or unhappy, or cries a lot
  • is afraid or worried a lot
  • gets very upset about being separated from you, or avoids social situations
  • starts behaving in ways that he’s outgrown, like sucking his thumb or wetting the bed
  • has trouble paying attention, can’t sit still or is restless.

Physical signs
Your child:

  • has trouble sleeping or eating
  • says she has physical pain – for example, headaches, stomach aches, nausea or other physical pains that don’t have a clear medical cause.

School and social signs
If your child is at school, you might also notice your child:

  • not doing as well as usual at school
  • having problems fitting in at school or getting along with other children
  • not wanting to go to social events like birthday parties.

Talking to your child about mental health

If you notice a sudden change in your child’s mood or behaviour that continues for a few weeks, encourage him to talk with you about what’s on his mind, and really listen to what he’s saying. Listening and showing empathy can comfort your child if something is bothering him.

If you’re not sure how to talk with your child about mental health, here are some ideas to encourage your child to talk:

  • Try telling your child that you’ve noticed she seems sad and you want to help. Your child is more likely to talk openly with you about her feelings if you’re accepting and don’t judge or over-react to what she tells you.
  • Tell your child that it’s not unusual for children to feel worried, stressed or sad at times.
  • Tell your child that opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can be scary, but talking about a problem with an adult he trusts can help make feelings clearer.
  • Emphasise that your child isn’t alone. You’ll be there whenever she wants to talk.

If you can, it’s important to work out whether your child’s low mood is because of a specific, temporary situation or a more serious, continuing problem.

This can help you decide how best to help your child. For example, if your child is disappointed about not being invited to a birthday party, you might be able to help him cope with this yourself. But if your child is experiencing a serious and lasting problem like bullying, you need to work with his teachers to sort it out.

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

Getting help for your child’s mental health difficulties

If the changes in your child’s mood or behaviour last for more than a few weeks, are distressing her and affecting her ability to get on with everyday activities and enjoy life, get professional help as soon as possible.

There are various professional support options, including:

  • your child’s teacher at preschool or school, or a school counsellor
  • your GP
  • a psychologist who is trained to work with children and families
  • a social worker
  • your local community health centre
  • your local mental health service.

If your child is aged 5-8 years, he can also talk with a Kids Helpline counsellor by calling 1800 551 800, or using the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service.

If you don’t know where to find the most appropriate services for your family, your GP is a good place to start.

Supporting your child through mental health difficulties can be hard. It’s important to look after yourself too. You can find support options on our mental health links and resources page. You can also call a parenting helpline.

Childhood mental health problems

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

Childhood mental health problems are usually grouped into two types – conditions like depression and anxiety disorders, and conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

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