How to talk to kids about their mental health
Updated June 2023 | 6 min read
Expert contributors Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central; Trish Crews, General Manager Communities at Netball NSW; Linda Opie, Head of Health and Wellbeing at HCF
Words by Kerry McCarthy and Katherine Chatfield
Keeping a check on your kids’ mental health is essential. Discover how to spot signs of anxiety or depression, and where to get help if it’s needed.
Most of us are familiar with talking to children about their physical needs and the importance of eating nutritious food, getting a good night’s sleep and why movement makes us feel good.
Approaching the subject of mental health with your child isn’t always as easy. But the earlier in life we allow children to be able to identify when they’re having a tough time, the more tools and strategies they’ll have to help them understand how to open up and ask for help.
How many kids have mental health issues?
According to Health Direct, one in seven children and teens have recently experienced a mental health disorder in Australia. The most common disorder is ADHD, followed by anxiety, depression and conduct disorder (a disruptive behaviour disorder).
Why is the mental health of your child important?
Good mental health means children can feel good about themselves and build healthy, secure relationships with those around them. It also allows them to adapt to new situations like school and cope with challenges.
Studies show that poor mental health in children and adolescents is a strong indicator of continued mental health struggles into adulthood.
What is good mental health for kids?
Mental health in children relies on a number of factors. “For children aged five to 10, a sense of connection is the building block from which good mental health emerges – particularly connection with a primary caregiver,” says Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central, a support service for parents and children aged four to 11, and a partner of HCF.
“Children need to feel safe, understood and cared for. There are many ways families can communicate to a child that they’re safe and loved, that we appreciate them and are interested in them.”
What improves a child's mental health?
As well as loving and supportive relationships at home, there are several other factors that contribute to a child’s overall sense of wellbeing. These include connection to their community, physical activity and good eating habits.
Team and competitive sports aren’t just about physical fitness; they can also boost your kids‘ mental health and happiness. “When playing sport, you release ‘feel-good’ hormones called endorphins,” says Trish Crews, General Manager Communities at Netball NSW. “Team sports provide additional benefits such as increased self-esteem, sense of belonging and improving resilience. Team sports are beneficial for all children to build life skills.”
Sleep is an essential part of brain development. Children who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and impulsive behaviour than those who get adequate shut-eye, according to research. The recommended amount of sleep for children aged between six and 12 is nine to 12 hours. To help your children get enough sleep, set healthy screen-time habits like reducing screen time before bed, and removing screens from their bedroom. Help them unwind before bed with a story or audio book.
Giving your children a healthy, balanced diet can set them up to experience positive mental health. Adolescents who eat five or more fruits and vegetables a day generally have a stronger mental wellbeing than those who eat no fresh food, a study found. While you can’t always control what your child eats, giving them a healthy lunch box for school, encouraging family meals and role-modelling healthy eating habits sets them up with good tools for a healthy lifestyle.
Healthy Teens for Life, our education hub of resources, can help you support your teens from 13 to 17 to develop healthy eating habits. Eligible members with health cover (excluding Overseas Visitors Health Cover) can access these resources by logging in to online member services.
How do anxiety disorders develop in childhood or early teens?
It’s normal for children to feel worried occasionally; big events like starting a new school, moving house or navigating changes in friendship groups can all cause some anxiety.
However, for some children, anxiety can affect their everyday behaviour. It’s believed this type of anxiety disorder can be caused by both biological and environmental factors. Some children may inherit a tendency to be anxious. Others may feel anxious after a period of stress, a traumatic event, or after learning anxious behaviours from a parent or role model.
How do I know if my child is struggling with their mental health?
Signs a child may be feeling sad or anxious can be subtle, says Linda Opie, Head of Health and Wellbeing at HCF. "Perhaps your chatterbox child is a bit quiet or doesn’t seem to laugh as much. Small things that wouldn’t normally bother a child could have them in floods of tears. Changes in sleeping or eating patterns might also indicate they’re not feeling themselves."
It’s also important to trust your instincts. "If you feel like your child is struggling, you’re probably right," says Kirrilie.
How can I help my child open up about mental health issues?
Children need support and space to talk about how they feel, in a way that helps them feel safe and understood. “Being available to talk, giving them space to open up, or even just getting down on your knees and giving them a big hug are all ways we can let our kids know that it’s okay to feel sad,” says Linda.
Use visual cues
Sometimes it’s easier for kids to express their feelings using visual cues. Our downloadable emotions character chart can help children who struggle to express how they feel verbally. Ask your child to point to two to three of the faces that show how they felt throughout the day. You can do this at different times of the day and even ask your child to draw more ‘feeling’ faces. This can be a great way to check in on how young children are feeling.
Create a ‘safe list’
Ask your child to create a list of people they love, trust and enjoy talking to. These people might include you, a sibling or a grandparent. Write down the ways they can communicate with each person, like talking in person, phone, text, FaceTime or writing a letter. Put the list somewhere visible so your child is easily reminded of all the people who are there to talk to and help them if they need it.
How should parents deal with kids who have mental health issues?
There may come a time when you feel like you can’t provide your child the kind of support they need. "Everybody can have a bad day – doors are slammed, something is thrown," says Linda. "But if significant changes in mood and behaviour persist, your child may need personalised support.
"Parents don’t always have the answers and may need support when navigating change and uncertainty. It’s important to know there’s support available, and reaching out for help when you or your child needs it is a strength. Equally, telling friends that you’re seeking guidance may give them the confidence to do the same."
Mental health resources and support
If you feel that you or your child need extra support there are resources and experts who can help.
Calm Kid Central
Members who have hospital or extras cover can access Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program helping kids aged four to 11 manage big feelings and emotional challenges. The program provides confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours, as well as tools and resources like this 5 Steps to Help Young Kids Share their Big Feelings fact sheet.
Raising Children Network
This government-funded website offers videos, articles and apps for parents to help children of all ages.
A free Australian telephone and online counselling service for young between the ages of five and 25.
Growing Great Tweens podcast
In the fourth season of our Navigating Parenthood podcast, Growing Great Tweens, dad and host Dylan Lewis discusses the experience of raising today's tweens with other parents. He tackles issues faced by many families, from raising mentally strong kids and navigating the online universe, to how to stay connected and tackle identity and belonging with your tweens.
ANXIETY IN CHILDREN
Being able to identify signs and symptoms of anxiety in a child can help parents and carers understand and support them.
SIGNS OF CHILDHOOD DEPRESSION
How to spot the signs of depression in kids.
HELP FOR CHILDHOOD DEPRESSION
What to do and say and where to get help.
SCREEN TIME FOR KIDS
How to build healthy habits.
* Excludes Accident Only Basic cover and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.
This communication contains information which is copyright to The Hospitals Contribution Fund of Australia Limited (HCF). It should not be copied, disclosed or distributed without the authority of HCF. Except as required by law, HCF does not represent, warrant and/or guarantee that this communication is free from errors, virus, interception or interference. All reasonable efforts have been taken to ensure the accuracy of material contained on this website. It’s not intended that this website be comprehensive or render advice. HCF members should rely on authoritative advice they seek from qualified practitioners in the health and medical fields as the information provided on this website is general information only and may not be suitable to individual circumstances or health needs. Please check with your health professional before making any dietary, medical or other health decisions as a result of reading this website.