Supporting your child's mental health

Supporting your child’s mental health and wellbeing is an important part of their growth and development. It is an ongoing process and as a parent, you may need to adapt to their needs as they age.  

Did you know?

Over 75% of mental health problems occur before the age of 25.

Sometimes you and your family may feel a little snowed under or that life is tough. Know that there are always strategies you can use to help support your child’s mental health and wellbeing. This can be through small day-to-day strategies or seeking professional help like many other Australians do. 

Recognising mental health concerns

As a parent, at times, you may have concerns about your child’s mental health. As your child develops, their behaviour displays in various ways and they may express themselves differently than you expect. 

Some of these behaviours are a completely normal part of development. They are often motivated by a combination of biological, psychological and social needs. 

Recognising the signs that your child may need support will help give you confidence and allow them to feel heard in a safe space. 

Children and young adults often don’t express how they are feeling due to: 

  • thoughts of helplessness 
  • the perception that no one will listen or understand 
  • the fear of judgement or stigma 
  • the fear of consequences  
  • a worry they won’t be taken seriously.

This may be even more pronounced for children who are neurodivergent, have learning difficulties, are living in care, identify as LGBTQ+ or have had significant life events.  

Childhood development is a period of rapid change, so separating the process of growth from the symptoms of mental ill health can be difficult. The more you understand the subtle differences in your child, the more you can identify if there is cause for concern.  

Signs and symptoms of mental health concerns

  • Trouble sleeping or constantly overtired 
  • Consistent low mood such as sadness for more than 2 weeks 
  • Sudden mood or behavioural changes 
  • Irritability 
  • Fluctuations in weight (weight gain or weight loss) 
  • Loss of appetite or significant change in dietary intake 
  • A drop in academic performance 
  • Behaving in a way they have outgrown (eg. Wetting the bed or sucking their thumb) 
  • Withdrawal of regular social situations, friends or family 
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts 

It’s important to note that warning signs of mental health concerns can present themselves in many different ways and could be a combination of subtle changes. Talking to your child about any concerns can be an easier way to understand what they are going through and offer support.  

Seek appropriate help

Don’t try to diagnose your child with a specific mental health condition. It is best to seek the help of a healthcare provider, such as your family doctor, who has the resources and skills to identify and manage certain conditions.

Children's behaviour becomes more sophisticated and complex as they grow and their needs change. Children learn about what behaviours are expected of them from the people around them. As they develop, they become better at knowing how they feel and controlling their actions. 

Starting the conversation about mental health

Talking to your child about their mental health may seem a difficult task but it is a critical aspect of raising children. Know that you can start a conversation as gently as you need to in order to help you and your child feel comfortable and open up to the idea. 

You also have the support of family, friends and trained mental health professionals so don’t feel like you need to have these conversations alone. 

There is no magic way to start a conversation about mental health with your child. Start with questions like: 

  • ‘How are you feeling about (a sports match/exams/school)?’ 
  • ‘It seems like you haven’t been yourself lately; how are things?’ 
  • ‘It’s OK if you don’t want to talk right now but know I’m here for you when you’re ready and we can work it out together.’ 

Regular conversations with your child will not only help you understand where their mental health may be, it will also give them a guide to arrange their emotions based on their experiences and relationships. Starting these conversations from an early age, when they are learning their emotions and responses to them allows for ongoing conversations as they develop. 

Keep these tips in mind to help guide your conversations. 

Keep the discussion open

Having frequent conversations with your child about their mental health early in their life can help them remove any stigma associated with asking for help. If it isn’t an emergency and they are not ready to chat, that’s OK; come back to the conversation when they may be ready in the coming days.

Create a supportive and safe environment

Family and the home are safe spaces for children. Create a positive mental health environment by acknowledging their feelings, listening to concerns, providing engaging and fun activities and praising your child’s efforts and strengths. As a parent, you want to be available but not intrusive.

Choose an appropriate time, space and place

As a parent, you can choose when to raise any mental health concerns with your child and check in if they feel comfortable too. This could be in the home, out on a walk or a drive. Any time for your child and you to feel comfortable on the topic.

Manage your own feelings and response

Having big emotional responses to your child’s conversations, regardless of the topic, creates a reluctance to open up about their mental health. Practice responding calmly to your child’s conversations, even though sometimes it can be upsetting or create anger. See Mental Health in Australia for more tips on coping strategies and support.

Acknowledge emotions and feelings are a part of life

Emotions are a natural part of being human. Mental health is ever changing and moves back and forth along a continuum, from feeling terrible to feeling amazing. Let your child know that it’s OK to feel down, lonely or sad sometimes. When the continuum stays in a low phase for a significant amount of time, it creates cause for concern. Asking whether they are doing OK, are struggling, are unwell or are in crisis can help categorise where your child’s mental health state is.

Empower your child to understand their different moods

From a young age, you can help your child identify the emotions they are feeling. When they can name and recognise their emotions, they are better equipped to deal with them and respond appropriately. As they age, these emotions can be better defined as they become more nuanced. Understanding the cause and impact of emotions is always something children and young adults can work on. See Emerging topics for more information on Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

Remember, you are your child’s parent; you don’t have to be an expert on all related topics. See below for more resources to stay informed. 

Feel free to give yourself time, step away and let your child know you will chat with them further when you’ve found the right information for their question. 

Next steps when you have concerns

If you have discussed your concerns with your child and either confirmed your intuition or still suspect your child is having difficulty with their mental health, consult your family doctor. 

Reach out to your child’s teacher, trusted relatives, coaches or close family friends to see if they have seen any recent changes in your child. This may also be good information to share with your doctor when voicing your concerns. 

When to seek help

As a parent, you should seek further professional help if your child’s strong emotions:

  • last longer than 2 weeks 
  • are affecting the relationships around them 
  • are impacting their day-to-day life 
  • are a constant cause of concern or distress.

Healthcare professionals

There are several health professionals who may be included on your child’s mental health journey. This includes your family doctor, a pediatric mental health specialist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a case manager or a youth social worker.

Diagnosis of a mental health condition

A diagnosis of a mental health condition will come from a thorough examination of your child’s signs and symptoms. This may include a complete medical history, parent or carer interviews, a history of feelings of concern, standardised questionnaires, diagnostic tools and any past experience of physical or emotional trauma.

Treatment of a mental health condition

Treatment for mental health conditions in children falls under two broad umbrellas of: psychological treatment or medical treatment. 

  1. Psychological treatment includes cognitive behavioural therapy (working through mental challenges and finding new coping strategies), interpersonal psychotherapy (understanding how relationships affect thoughts, behaviours and feelings) or dialectical behaviour therapy (often used in borderline personality disorder to help control emotions). 
  2. Medication for mental health conditions includes antidepressants, antipsychotic medication and mood stabilisers.

Supporting your child through their journey

As a parent or carer, you have an essential role to play in your child’s mental health journey. 

You are a trusted part of your child’s life and can help by:

  • learning more about your child’s mental health condition and what medication or therapies they may have been prescribed
  • asking questions about family support and counselling
  • working alongside your family doctor to help deal with any difficult behaviours which may present
  • find ways to relieve stress with your family and child
  • work with your child’s school or any social/sporting clubs.

Strategies to support your child

Supporting your child’s mental health will require a range of different strategies. Children are different and, therefore, will respond differently to strategies presented.

Understanding your children’s unique needs will help you modify your support to help them on their mental health journey.  

Strategies to support your child’s mental health include: 

Look after yourself as a parent

When you can create some self-care practices in your life, you are more likely to respond to your child in a patient, rational way. There is no way to be a perfect parent and there isn’t a manual for your child. Being as supportive as possible for your children whilst prioritising healthy eating, exercise, sleep and good mental health practices is the best thing you can do as a parent. Make sure you also ask for help when you need it- from friends, family or health professionals.

Role model good mental health behaviour

Your children look up to you and will likely imitate what you do. Take time to consider whether what you’re asking your child to do reflects your own behaviours. If not, it’s a great opportunity to work on your own mental health alongside your child’s. See Parent and carer wellbeing for more coping strategies.

Spend time together

By spending quality time with your child, you create stronger family bonds and a healthy mental health environment. Turn the television off during mealtimes, go for a short walk, help with homework activities or find new spots to explore on the weekend.

Build strong coping strategies

Coping strategies are those emotions we display after something hasn’t gone our way or is stressful. Practising coping strategies every day on small behaviours in order to create healthy habits. If the train is running late, look for a relaxing coping strategy like listening to your favourite song or a breathing technique; if you have a mental blank over a work or school project, go for a 10-minute active coping strategy walk around the block; if you are struggling to get to sleep after overthinking, journal your thoughts down as a creative coping strategy. 

When you are tired, hungry or multiple things seem to be going wrong, it’s even more important to understand coping strategies, display them in front of your children and help your children implement them. 

Keep note

Gathering information about your child’s mental health may mean keeping a diary of their feelings, behaviours and external influences. This can be a very useful way to understand themes or patterns of behaviour, how often they may occur and what are the main contributors. If/when you are speaking to a health professional about your child’s mental health, these notes can be very practical.

Build conversations as your child develops

Mental health is something that will always be present in your child’s life. As they age and grow, so too will the conversations around their mental health. Meet them at their level of understanding and continue to evolve the conversation to suit different stages of their life.

Make community connections

There are many positive mental health outcomes from the social connection that community involvement provides. It contributes to a sense of belonging and can develop relationships and emotional well-being in children and the wider family. Seek out community connections such as sporting clubs, music or drama societies, education or craft groups, and cultural or outdoor groups. A community’s social cohesion is directly correlated with a reduction in mental health concerns. 

Continue healthy lifestyles

Creating a lifestyle around healthy eating and active living is a great way to both improve mental health and reduce the risk of mental health concerns. It can be both a preventive measure and management tool for most mental health conditions. 

Healthy eating and active living can also help improve other secondary factors affecting mental health including boosting endorphins, regulating blood sugar levels or providing more regular sleep patterns. See How much movement is enough for more information.

Understanding a child's response to trauma

A trauma is a very distressing, painful or frightening event. A trauma is usually outside the normal events of life and can overwhelm a child’s coping skills and take away their sense of security. Witnessing or hearing about a violent or traumatic event can also be highly distressing and can have psychological impact on children.

It can include experiencing:

  • a serious injury
  • being involved in a car accident
  • having a sudden poor medical diagnosis
  • natural disaster
  • the death of a family member. 

Most children involved in a traumatic incident will experience some kind of emotional reaction. Children’s responses to distressing events depend on a wide range of factors including:

  • their age
  • stage of development
  • level of exposure
  • the way other people around them respond to the crisis. 

It is important to remember that not every child has an immediate reaction to a traumatic event. Some may have reactions a few days, weeks or even months later. Some may never have a reaction.

Commonly experienced reactions to a traumatic experience may include:

Preschool (1–5 years)

  • Bed-wetting or incontinence 
  • fear of darkness 
  • clinging to parents 
  • nightmares 
  • fear of being left alone; separation from parents 
  • regression or behaving like a younger child, for example, baby talk or thumb sucking 
  • changes in eating habits 
  • play that re-enacts the trauma.

School-age (5-11)

  • Changes in behaviour 
  • worry that it will ‘happen again’ 
  • fears about the safety of themselves or others 
  • guilt that they were to blame in some way
  • physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches) Questions or statements about death 
  • play that re-enacts the trauma 
  • nightmares/sleep disturbances 
  • changes in eating habits 
  • not wanting to go to school 
  • withdrawal or aggression 
  • avoidance of things or locations that remind them of the event.

Adolescence (11-16 years)

  • Wanting to discuss the event repeatedly 
  • loss of interest in social activities with peers; withdrawal, isolation 
  • repetitive thoughts or comments about death or dying 
  • denial about the effect of the trauma 
  • sleep and appetite disturbance 
  • rebellion in the home and at school 
  • school problems, for example, fighting, withdrawing or attention-seeking behaviours 
  • physical complaints, for example, headaches, vague pains, skin eruptions or bowel problems 
  • irresponsible behaviour or risk-taking, for example, drugs and alcohol.

Supporting a child after a traumatic event

As a parent or carer, it’s important to look after your own emotional needs first. Recognise and deal with your own feelings or reactions to the trauma your child has experienced. This will allow you to be available to confidently reassure and support your child. This can be more of a challenge if you were involved in or witnessed the same traumatic event as your child and you may need help from other supportive systems or health professionals.

Talk to your child: 

  • Gently explain to them what has happened – aim to tell your child the truth in age-appropriate language
  • Tell them that you love them and show them with cuddles and kisses
  • Tell them that it was not their fault 
  • promise to take care of them 
  • validate their feelings by letting them know it’s okay to feel upset or sad - acknowledge that being tough and brave all the time isn’t realistic.

Encourage your child to:

  • get enough sleep 
  • get regular exercise 
  • maintain their usual routine of school and activities 
  • keep in touch with their friends.

Allow your child to:

  • express their emotions, whether it is being sad, angry or crying - while it’s important not to get angry if your child has strong emotions, it is also vital not to condone violence or aggression. 
  • talk about the event as much as they want to, but don’t force them
  • discuss how they are feeling
  • draw or write about what they feel or what happened, if they want to
  • feel in control by offering opportunities for decision-making, such as choosing meals or picking out clothes, where appropriate
  • sleep with a light on if they are scared, providing a sense of security and comfort.

Informing school or childcare- Schools and childcare providers are often equipped to manage traumatic events and provide follow-up support for children. Confiding in a teacher can therefore be helpful and will also allow for greater understanding of any difficulties your child may experience. It also allows teachers to keep an eye on your child.

When to seek additional help- most children’s reactions to trauma will gradually decrease over time, often over a three-month period. This recovery time will vary depending on individual circumstances. You should seek professional help if the child has:

  • symptoms that continue for an extended period
  • is experiencing high levels of emotional or behavioural problems that are getting worse or not improving
  • problems related to the trauma weeks or months later
  • behaviours placing them or others at risk of harm
  • continued intrusive thoughts or flashbacks about the trauma
  • persistent avoidance of triggers associated with the trauma, for example not being able to travel in a car or on the same road an accident occurred on
  • highly anxious behaviours.

Mental health support

If your child is seeking help for their mental health, refer them to some of these relevant and useful support services: 

If you as a parent are thinking you may need some support yourself, please reach out to any of the following services:  

  • Head to Health (1800 595 212) a free confidential service to help connect you with the right services and keep you mentally healthy 
  • Beyond Blue (1300 224 636) to chat with a counsellor or connect with a peer support community 
  • Lifeline (13 11 14) for inclusive, non-judgemental and confidential support 
  • Mental Health Line (1800 011 511) a NSW state-wide phone service linking people to the right mental health support services. 
  • 13 YARN (13 92 76) a first national crisis support service for mob who are feeling overwhelmed or having difficulties coping
  • Transcultural Mental Health Line (1800 648 911) The line operates for people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities in NSW from Monday to Friday between 9:00 am and 4:30 pm.

If you think you or your child are at immediate risk of harm, call Triple Zero (000) or visit any hospital emergency department. 

Last updated Thursday 18th April 2024