Children’s mental health: what is it?

Mental health is the way 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.

Relationships and good mental health for children

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 – for example, waving and chatting to neighbours, attending local festivals or helping out at a community garden. This gives your child a stronger sense of her place in the world and helps her learn how to relate to different people.

Feelings and good mental health for children

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 all sorts of 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’.

Behaviour, goals, skills and good mental health for children

Here are ways to promote your child’s mental health and wellbeing through a focus on behaviour:

  • 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 your child has a healthy balance of screen time and other activities that are good for his development. This includes socialising with family and friends, being physically active, reading and being creative.

Good physical health and mental health for children

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 physically fit and well:

  • 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 herself as she develops new skills.
  • Make sure your child gets the sleep he needs. Quality sleep will help your child to manage stress and a busy life.

If you’re concerned that your child is showing signs of poor mental health, it’s best to seek professional help as soon as possible. Your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.

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