In focus: Understanding children’s mental health

Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child. We also appreciate that every child is unique and has different strengths, vulnerabilities and experiences that shape their health and development.

Mental health, like physical health, is something everyone has – including babies and young children.

Nurturing your child’s mental health builds a strong foundation for their overall health and wellbeing, now and in the future.

When children have positive mental health they can grow, play, learn, form healthy relationships with others, and cope with changes and challenges. They develop skills they’ll need to navigate life’s ups and downs.

This resource aims to help parents (and other adults who care for children) with understanding children’s mental health – what it is, why it’s important for children and what positive mental health looks like. It was created using learnings from families, research and health professionals who work with children and families.

What is child mental health?

Mental health, like physical health, is something everyone has. It starts developing before we are born and keeps developing and changing over our lifetime.

Some people and organisations use the term ‘mental health’ to mean mental health difficulties or mental illness. Mental health isn’t just about not feeling well or having trouble coping with challenges.

When we talk about children’s mental health we mean all the elements of a child’s emotional, psychological and social wellbeing.

Mental health includes how children:

  • think and feel – about themselves and others
  • behave and interact
  • form relationships
  • learn, and
  • play.

Why mental health is important for children

Positive mental health is important for a child’s overall wellbeing.

Children need positive mental health to engage in and enjoy daily life – at home, at school or childcare, and in their communities.

Positive mental health lays the foundation for the development of children’s bodies, minds, emotions and social skills.

Good mental health helps children to:

  • grow
  • play
  • learn and try new things
  • make friends and form healthy relationships with others, and
  • cope with change and challenges.

Healthy development and strong mental health during the first five years is an important foundation for children’s physical and emotional wellbeing throughout life.

In the following video (2 minutes, 51 seconds) Emerging Minds Director Brad Morgan discusses what parents need to know about children’s mental health.

Children’s mental health is changeable

A child’s mental health is not set from birth. Most children will have experiences that are nurturing and some that are stressful. So their mental health can change, depending on what’s going on in their life.

Most children will have positive, or good, mental health most of the time – where they feel good about themselves and others, and can manage the ups and downs of their everyday life. But it’s common for children to have times when their mental health is ‘just OK’, or they might be struggling to cope with some challenges. They might need some extra nurturing, connection with people who care about them, and help to get back to feeling good most of the time. And some children will experience mental health difficulties that significantly impact on their daily life and wellbeing, and need professional support.

You might see this full range of a child’s mental health experiences described as a mental health or wellbeing continuum.

As parents, it’s common to be concerned about how to tell if what your child is experiencing is a mental health difficulty, or an understandable response to a life event or the challenges children their age often experience.

It’s helpful to consider how your child is going in daily life over time. Often you can easily see their initial reaction to an event or experience in the way they show emotions and behave. For example, a child might be quiet and withdrawn when a grandparent dies, or ‘clingy’ after a damaging storm.

But it’s important to think about how your child is going in all the different areas of their life – to notice if anything that concerns you is ongoing and whether it’s getting better or getting worse.

For example, it’s natural for a child to feel sad if their pet dies and maybe not want to go to school the next day. So, there’s no need to be concerned about these expected reactions. However, if the sadness continues for more than a couple of weeks, and a child is having trouble sleeping, isn’t eating, or continues not wanting to go to school, these may be signs of mental health difficulties and it’s important to seek support.

When thinking about your child’s mental health, get curious about how they’re navigating and dealing with the different tasks and challenges they face in different areas of their daily life.

In the following video (2 minutes, 21 seconds) Emerging Minds Director Brad Morgan shares some things parents can look for when thinking about what’s going on in their child’s world, how their mental health is going, and if there are any signs to be concerned about.

What shapes a child’s mental health?

Many different factors, both internal (inside themselves) and external (outside themselves), can influence a child’s mental health at any given time.

Internal and external factors include:

  • their individual characteristics – things like their age and development, genetics, temperament, physical health, neurodivergence and any disabilities
  • their relationships with their family members and other significant adults in their life (like grandparents and educators)
  • their interactions with people
  • what they experience in the places they live, learn and play
  • what they see happening around them – in their local neighbourhood, community and the world.

All of these different factors are interacting in a child’s world. What happens or changes in one area of a child’s life can affect other areas, and together they can influence a child’s mental health positively or negatively.

You can learn more about the factors that can influence a child’s mental health and how they interact in What shapes children’s mental health.

What does positive mental health look like?

Positive mental health might look a bit different for each child, depending on their age and temperament. But generally, a child with good mental health will:

  • like being with family and friends
  • express a range of different emotions
  • behave and play in ways that are appropriate for their age and situation
  • be interested in learning and exploring the world around them
  • be willing to try new things; and
  • be able to navigate change and challenges.

When a child has positive mental health they will feel good about themselves most of the time and will be content a lot of the time. But they aren’t always or only happy. They can feel and express all the different emotions that are part of life – happiness and joy, but also sadness, annoyance, boredom, disappointment and so many more.

Positive mental health doesn’t mean that a child doesn’t cry or doesn’t have strong emotions. Having good mental health means when a child experiences sadness, worry or anger, they understand these big feelings and can develop skills to regulate and safely express them.

Children develop the ability to understand and express emotions best when their feelings are validated by supportive, caring adults. You can learn more about this in Understanding children’s emotions and behaviour.

For children, a key factor that builds positive mental health is feeling safe, secure and loved. When a child has learned and trusts that their parent and caring adults will be there if they need them and warmly responds to their needs, they feel secure to explore the world around them. It’s common for families to experience situations that don’t feel secure or safe – like the COVID-19 pandemic, a family relationship breakdown or a disaster. Children can cope and develop skills for managing tough times when they can rely on caring adults to support them while navigating difficulties.

Take a moment to think about the signs of positive mental health you notice in your child. What is your child doing – or what are you doing as a family – when you see those signs of good mental health?

What other parents notice

We asked a group of parents what positive mental health in their child or children looks like – here’s what they told us:

  • ‘When I think about my three children, they all react very, very differently – and their positive mental health looks very different. And so I think remembering to treat our children as individuals and realising that what is positive mental health for one child may not be for another child. And I think definitely having a healthy relationship with your child and having them want to be around you and want to be engaged and wanting to share with you things that are important to them. I feel like that’s really important.’
    – Shelly, parent of three

  • ‘With my son who has autism … when he’s in his room drawing logos, I know he is OK, things are OK for him for the day, especially in his head. He’s content, he feels safe and he knows what he wants to do and how to do it.’
    – Flick, mum of four

  • ‘It’s really obvious when they try something tricky and they get that moment of they don’t want to continue … So my child does gymnastics and that comes up fairly often with the skills that she doesn’t like doing. But seeing her push through those – even though it’s difficult, she’s able to manage those feelings.’
    – Jess, parent of one

  • ‘When he’s in a positive mental health space, [my 3-year-old son] plays independently – he’ll do imaginative play and make up stories. And he’s very musical, so he’ll dance and he’ll sing if there’s music playing in the background. He’ll be engaging with us, but not demanding attention.’
    – James, dad of two

  • ‘I know [my children] are doing well when there’s just this general engaging with life and each other … That [doesn’t mean there’s no] sibling arguments and squabbles, but they’re not the serious sort, they’re just the regular sort. As a family, it’s that coming together with a bit of ease.’
    – Emi, parent of four

Understanding your child’s mental health

Children are growing, learning and changing so quickly that it can be hard for parents (and educators, health professionals and other adults in a child’s world) to know if a child is going OK or to recognise signs that they might need some extra support to cope with difficulties.

To understand and support your child’s mental health and wellbeing it’s important to think about the whole child.

It may be easy to see some parts of your child – like their behaviours and mood. But it’s important to be curious about all the parts that make up your whole child, including their unique temperament, strengths, interests and where they’re at in their development.

Mental health is connected to all the different parts of a child’s life.

We also need to think about a child’s relationships and interactions in all the different environments where they spend time – home, school or childcare, your neighbourhood – and what’s going on around them.

For example, emotional reactions and behaviours that may be signs of a mental health difficulty would be expected for a child whose family has recently experienced a disaster in their community, such as a flood.

Or, a child who seems content and calm might be ‘internalising’ (thinking about but not showing that they’re having) distressing thoughts and difficult emotions. It could be easy to miss their need for some support unless you know that they have experienced a stressor such as bullying at school or a change of rooms at childcare.

The more you are curious and learn about your child’s experiences, thoughts, behaviours and emotions, the more confident you’ll be about recognising when they need support and the kind of help they might need.

Learn more about children’s mental health

For more information about helping children build positive mental health, see the following resources in our Understanding and supporting children’s mental health series.

Emerging Minds Families also has information about various factors, experiences and events that might impact on a child’s mental health – like experiencing or engaging in bullying, experiencing a disaster in their community, their parents’ separation, children’s social connections and more – and what parents and other adults can do to support children’s wellbeing.

Discover more resources

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