In focus: What shapes 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.

Children’s mental health is not set from birth. It’s shaped by various factors and experiences in a child’s life that can have either a positive or negative impact. This resource aims to help parents (and other adults who care for children) understand:

  • that many different factors can shape children’s mental health
  • the importance of seeing your whole child; and
  • what supports positive mental health and what can get in the way of it.

Positive mental health supports the development of children’s bodies, minds, emotions and social skills. If you haven’t already, you might like to read Understanding children’s mental health before continuing with this resource. It introduces topics like what child mental health is, why mental health is important for children and what positive mental health looks like in children.

This resource draws on insights from research, the lived experience of families and learnings of health professionals who work with children and families.

What surrounds me shapes me

Where a child is born, lives, plays and learns influences what they experience and are exposed to. A child’s surroundings shape their developing body and brain.

Many different factors, both internal (inside) and external (outside) can shape children’s mental health.

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 family members and other significant adults in their life
  • their interactions with people
  • what they experience in the places they live, learn and play; and
  • 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.

In this image from our animation What is child mental health? the icons on the circles represent factors surrounding Emm that might shape their mental health.


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.

How an event or experience impacts on a child’s mental health depends on other things too, especially their family relationships and connections with other important adults (e.g. grandparents or educators) and the support available to them and their parents.

For example, how a child recovers after a disaster in their community depends on:

  • whether they can still go to their school/preschool/daycare, where they can keep up routines and connections with friends
  • how their parents are coping; and
  • what kinds of support are provided to their family.

If a child experiences bullying at school, the impact it has on their mental health can be shaped by:

  • whether they have someone they feel safe to talk to about it
  • their sense of belonging in other places outside school (like their community or a sports club); and
  • the school’s bullying policy and response.

How a child adjusts after their parents’ separation or divorce is impacted by their age and understanding, as well as how their parents communicate and interact with each other.

A child whose parent experiences mental health difficulties may take on responsibilities that others their age wouldn’t usually have. This could lead to feeling overwhelmed, and disconnected from friends if they have less time to spend with them. But if the child is well supported by other adults and able to continue activities they enjoy, they may cope well.

These short videos (each between 1 and 1.5 minutes) show common experiences that can affect children’s mental health and some factors that may positively or negatively influence it. As you watch, notice things the children identify that are helpful, including actions of their parents or other supportive adults.

Experiencing bullying
When a parent is unwell
After a disaster
When parents separate

Like adults, children can, and do, recover well after stressful experiences if they have a parent or other adult who responds warmly and can help them to understand the experience.

Being part of a connected family and community while navigating difficulties can help children build resilience and skills for dealing with future challenges. Whatever the situation is, there are a few key things you can do to support your child’s mental health and wellbeing.

Seeing your whole child

When you look at your child, what do you see?

It’s easy to see things like the colour of their hair and eyes, their behaviour, their moods, the way they play with other children. But there are so many other parts that make up your child, and influence their health, development and overall wellbeing.

To understand and support your child’s mental health and wellbeing it’s important to try to see your ‘whole’ child – their inner world, relationships and experiences in the places they live, play and learn.

This following video (2 minutes) highlights some of the different parts of a child’s life that contribute to their development and wellbeing.

You might like to take a few minutes to be curious about your ‘whole’ child and think about how these things highlighted in the video might be shaping their mental health.

What have you noticed about your child’s:

  • personality and temperament?
  • relationships with people, for example family members, other important adults, or peers (children around the same age)?
  • everyday surroundings, for example home, childcare/early learning centre/school, or neighbourhood?
  • routines and preferences, for example sleeping, eating?
  • ways of understanding, problem solving or responding to challenges?

Seeing your ‘whole’ child and staying curious about what they are experiencing, thinking and feeling as they develop and learn helps you to understand your child for who they are and how they might change over time. You can nurture their capabilities and help them work around the things they aren’t so strong in. It also helps you to see when they are going through difficult times and need support and care so they can thrive.

What supports children’s mental health?

It’s never too early, or too late, to support your child’s mental health.

A child’s mental health begins developing before they’re born, and is shaped in all their interactions and relationships with their parents and other people.

Throughout childhood, but especially in their first five years, stable relationships with nurturing adults help children thrive. We know from research and experiences of families and health professionals that the key to children forming secure attachments and good mental health is having a strong, stable relationship with at least one caring adult who sees and responds to their needs.

All the little moments of connection a child has with their parents, siblings and other caregivers are the building blocks of positive mental health.

If you can continue with warm and consistent parenting even during tough times it helps protect and nurture children’s mental health. If you’re currently finding it hard to be nurturing because of difficulties or stresses you are experiencing, you can help your child get the support and connection they need from another family member or adult they trust. For example, you could organise for them to visit a grandparent or a family friend who they enjoy spending time with.

When a child, or their parent or family, is dealing with challenges, they feel safer and better able to cope if they have access to a caring adult who can help them express their feelings and ‘make meaning’ of the situation. For example, when parents separate it’s really common for children to think it’s because of something they did. Children can adjust well if their parents explain (in age-appropriate ways and words) what’s going on and reassure them the separation is not their fault.

To nurture and protect your child’s mental health, focus on the ‘PERCS’:

  • Parent-child relationship
    Build a strong bond with your child by responding warmly and consistently to their needs and making time to connect with them.
  • Emotions and behaviours
    Tune in to your child’s feelings and be curious about what’s behind their behaviours, so you can help them understand and express all their emotions in healthy ways.
  • Routines
    Create family routines to help children feel secure, reduce stress and find time for connection and fun.
  • Communication and meaning-making
    Talk openly with children to help them understand and make meaning of what’s happening in their world.
  • Support networks
    Know where you can get support and how to ask for help when you need it, and how to help your child build their support team, too.

Five ways you can support your child’s mental health explains how focusing on the PERCS of family life promotes and protects positive mental health and offers some ideas you can try.

All the little moments of connection a child has with their parents, siblings and other caregivers are the building blocks of positive mental health.

Notice what your child does to look after their mental health

Children are often the experts when it comes to managing stress and finding ways to regulate their own emotions.

Even infants and toddlers know and communicate what they need. For example, babies cry, reach out and use facial expressions to communicate their needs or to engage with their carers. When they are tired infants might look away, become jerky in their movements or ‘grizzle’.  This is how they ask for help to settle and rest.

Sometimes toddlers become loud or repeatedly do things to gain your attention. This can be a way of them asking for connection because they need their ‘emotional cup’ filled. Sometimes, toddlers withdraw or hide (e.g. under their bed or behind the sofa) – this can be their way of telling you they feel unsafe, anxious or overwhelmed.

Primary school-aged children often know and naturally seek out activities and people that help them regulate their emotions and feel good.

This might look like:

  • spending time with a caring adult, maybe playing together or having a hug
  • spending time alone, reading, colouring in or listening to music
  • connecting with nature and their environment
  • hanging out with their best friend
  • talking to an extended family member or other adult they trust, like an aunty or teacher
  • jumping on a trampoline or swinging
  • playing with their pet
  • practicing or playing a sport they enjoy; or
  • chatting online with friends or peers who have been through the same experience, for example other children whose parents have divorced, or who have a parent with a mental or physical illness.

‘If you don’t have siblings or pets then I’d recommend just go outside and either play on a trampoline … or just sit … under some trees or something and just relax and let all your thinking out.’

Paul, 11 years old

Notice, and if possible support, healthy activities that help your child feel better or more calm, express their emotions safely, and connect with people or places that support them.

We invited children in an art group to draw what they do, or things in their life that help them, to cope with challenges and feel positive feelings. As you view their artworks and hear their words in the following video (1 minute, 5 seconds), think about anything you’ve noticed that your child does to feel better when they’re experiencing challenges, or to cope with stresses and big feelings.

If you have older children (pre-teens or teenagers), watching the following video (4 minutes, 45 seconds) might help you think about the ways they look after themselves and deal with stresses and difficulties.

Letting your child know you see what they are doing to manage big feelings or make themselves feel better can help them feel understood and also improve their understanding of themselves. For example, you might say: ‘I’ve noticed you seem to feel calmer after jumping on the trampoline. Have you found that helps when you get cross with your sister? What a great idea!’ Or: ‘It seems like when you feel frustrated about what’s going on at school that drawing helps? Want to get some more pencils on the weekend?’

What can get in the way of children’s mental health?

There are many outside (external) factors impacting children’s mental health that can either support or worry parents and families. Children can notice and feel the impacts too.

Stressors can be sudden, like a parent experiencing a mental illness relapse or a disaster (e.g. bushfire or storm), or ongoing like money struggles. Both types increase adult stress and can get in the way of being able to parent in the way they want to or usually would.

There is no need to hide or try to protect your child from challenges or difficulties your family is navigating. It’s OK (and even helpful in the long run) to let your child know that life isn’t always going to go smoothly. Try to clearly explain – in an age-appropriate way – what’s happening and what it means for your child, including any changes to their usual routine. For example, ‘Mum is going to stay at the hospital as she hasn’t been feeling good lately. We know you miss her and she misses you too. But she needs to be there so the doctors can take care of her. This week Grandma will be picking you up from school and bringing you home.’

Children can develop resilience if they are supported when facing, and dealing with, challenges. They are more likely to cope with tough times as long as they have supportive adults around them, and the challenges faced don’t lead to ongoing stress or fear.

But it’s also important to know that a child’s development and mental health is influenced, positively or negatively, by what’s going on around them.

Every child and family will have ups and downs, but with care, connection and support we can help children to be mentally healthy and thrive. Remember, to look after your child, you need to look after yourself. Take some time to do the things that help you cope with stress and manage your own emotions, so that you can tune in and respond to your child’s needs. Getting information and support that meets their needs helps families keep relationships strong and build resilience. If you’re not sure what services are available to help your family, start by talking to your family doctor/GP.

When children have mental health difficulties

Children – even very young children – can experience mental health difficulties that impact on their ability to function well and enjoy life. Children can have thoughts, feelings and behaviours that cause them distress and get in the way of them doing or enjoying everyday activities.

When children experience difficulties that significantly impact on their daily life, often they are temporary. With the right support children can shift back towards positive mental health. Sometimes support from family, friends and community is enough and other times help from professionals like a family doctor/GP or psychologist will be helpful.

It’s common for children to feel anxious, stressed, angry or scared sometimes as they grow up and learn about the world. It can be hard to tell if what your child is experiencing is a typical reaction to something happening in their life that they can get through with your support, or if they might need help from a health professional to understand and manage their thoughts and feelings.

Signs of mental health difficulties

Often the first signs of mental health difficulties in children are ongoing challenging behaviours or relationship problems. These can be signs that a child is struggling to understand and express big emotions, worries or stresses.

You might notice your child:

  • has more trouble than usual calming down after they get upset
  • has started having sleep issues (and you’ve ruled out physical causes like teething or illness)
  • is crying more; or
  • is less playful, not joining in at preschool or school, or not interested in things they usually love doing.

Often children’s mental health difficulties appear as physical symptoms, such as tummy aches, trouble sleeping or just ‘feeling sick’ a lot.

Older children (pre-teens and teens) might be engaging less at school or even start refusing to go if they’re struggling with learning difficulties, experiencing bullying or other challenges.

Sometimes children who are struggling with emotions don’t have the right words to express what is worrying them. Instead, they might communicate with their behaviour. Adults can misunderstand this behaviour and wrongly label a child as ‘naughty’ or ‘attention-seeking’. It’s important to understand that this behaviour is rarely intentional – it’s generally because a child can’t yet regulate or express what they’re feeling in positive ways. Find out more about what your child might be communicating through their behaviour.

Make sure your child knows it’s completely OK to feel whatever they are feeling, and that you’re there to support them – and get help if they need it – so they can get back to feeling good about themselves and enjoying life.

If you are concerned that your child’s thoughts, feelings or behaviour are impacting on their daily life, wellbeing, learning or relationships with friends and family, talk to your family doctor/GP. They can provide support, and recommend further resources or refer you to a child mental health professional if required.

If your child is old enough, give them contact details for services that support children who have been through similar experiences:

Getting help early reduces a child’s risk of developing mental health difficulties when they are a teenager or adult, and supports children to learn and practise valuable resilience skills.

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.

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