Parents and carers play an important role in promoting positive mental health and wellbeing in children.
Research shows approximately 1 in 7 children and adolescents aged 4–17 years in Australia experience mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
With the prevalence of mental illness in our young ones, it’s never too early to start focusing on your child’s mental health.
Some factors that may impact a child or young person’s mental health include:
- Family dynamics
- A relationship breakup
- Bullying and cyberbullying
- Family history of mental illness
- Low self-esteem and/or body image issues
- Pressure around school, exams, and the future
- Big life changes (e.g. parents separating, moving school or home)
- Traumatic events (e.g. natural disaster, experiencing or witnessing abuse, losing someone close to them).
Adverse mental health can have a significant impact on a child’s development, learning, social inclusion, family life, and physical health.
We share some ways to help support your child’s mental health and how to spot the signs they may need some extra support.
Encourage open communication about feelings
Talking about feelings from a young age can help your child recognise and label their emotions – a powerful tool that can help them better understand and regulate them in healthy ways.
Encourage your child to share how they’re feeling and provide validation and support. Telling them to stop crying or to get over it can lead to feelings of shame around their emotions and teach them it’s not safe to express themselves around you.
Try to remember that your child isn’t giving you a hard time – they’re having a hard time.
Some validating statements might include:
- “It’s OK to cry.”
- “That sounds really stressful.”
- “How can I help you feel better?”
- “I understand why you’re upset.”
- “I can see that made you feel sad.”
- “What might make you feel better?”
Validating your child’s feelings will make them feel supported and strengthen the trust in your relationship.
It also tells them you’re a safe space and they can come to you when they’re having a hard time or need advice. This sets the foundation for a strong, close relationship as they grow into an adult.
Support a healthy lifestyle
Physical health and mental health are closely connected, and a healthy lifestyle and home environment can be a crucial foundation for positive mental health and wellbeing.
Some factors that can help support a healthy lifestyle include:
- Getting enough sleep
- Getting daily exercise
- Eating a balanced diet
- Spending time outdoors
- Avoiding caffeine and substances
- Spending time with friends and family
- Doing the hobbies and activities they enjoy
- Having time to rest and relax to balance school and other obligations.
It’s important to remember that different children have different needs. For example, one child may need quiet alone time to feel calm and happy, while another may prefer to spend time socialising.
Make the effort to learn what lifestyle factors and habits best support your child’s wellbeing, and pay attention to their moods and behaviours.
Model healthy coping skills
Do you find it hard to regulate your emotions sometimes? Imagine how much harder it can be for children.
One of the best ways to help kids deal with big feelings is to show them how you stay calm in stressful or upsetting situations yourself.
Modelling healthy coping strategies to your child from a young age teaches them that it’s OK to feel angry, sad, frustrated, and disappointed, but it’s important that we try to process and express these feelings in healthy ways.
This might look like:
- Breathing exercises – “I’m feeling a bit stressed out because of all the traffic. I’m going to take three big, deep breaths to help me feel calm.”
- Mindful walking – “I’ve had a big day today. I’m going to go for a quiet walk to clear my head.”
- Journalling – “My mind feels a bit busy. I’m going to write down my worries to get them out of my head and help me make a plan.”
- Dancing – “Dancing makes me happy, so I’m going to put on my favourite song and move my body to get some positive energy going.”
- Walking away – “I’m feeling upset right now, so I’m going to walk away until I feel calm enough to talk about it respectfully.”
Your strategies may change based on your child’s age, but these are some examples of coping skills your child may be able to adopt for themselves.
Let them know they’re loved and supported
Positive words of affirmation can help increase your child’s confidence, build resilience, and encourage positive self-talk.
Remind them often that you love them, you’re proud of them, and you’re there for them.
Find specific qualities and personality traits to compliment. Whether it’s their big imagination, kindness, or sense of humour, calling out specific things you love about them will make them feel extra special and appreciated.
You can do this by telling them in person or getting creative with a surprise note in their lunchbox or on their pillow.
Keep an eye out for changes in behaviour
Paying close attention to your child’s moods and behaviours can help you pick up on cues they may be struggling mentally – whether they verbalise those feelings or not.
It’s important to remember not everyone who has anxiety will experience the same symptoms, but these are just some common symptoms of anxiety in children:
- Crying often
- Changes in eating
- Using the toilet often
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability and outbursts
- Rapid breathing or heartbeat
- Being tired for no real reason
- Restlessness, fidgeting, or shakiness
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Complaining of tummy aches and feeling sick
- Being clingy or worrying about abandonment
- Constantly worrying or having negative thoughts
- Regression (denying ability to do tasks they normally can).
If you notice these signs in your child, it might help to seek professional support through your family doctor and/or a counsellor.
Our counsellors provide a safe and supportive space for children and families to explore their feelings and find healthy ways to cope.
Call 1300 364 277 to make an appointment or to learn more about our counselling services.
Kids Helpline provides 24/7 support for kids, teens, and young adults: 1800 55 1800.
If you found this advice helpful, you might enjoy our blog post on gentle parenting.