Did you know that about one in every seven Australian children experiences mental health difficulties and that around half of all serious adult mental health concerns begin before children turn 14 years of age?
Many children do not get the support they need to manage their mental health and this is sometimes because families do not identify children’s difficulties as mental health issues and partly because few people know where to go to get help.
Children with good mental health are able to manage their emotions and express these emotions in a way that is acceptable to their families and the world around them. They are able to build loving relationships with a range of people.
They feel good about themselves and are happy to try new things, and do not let occasional failures destroy them.
They are more likely to get along with others, have friendships and cope with challenges that life throws at them.
We all feel worried, frustrated, sad, angry or anxious at times, and such feelings are perfectly normal. When these feelings impact on our ability to cope with life then we say there is a mental health risk.
Mental health is a continuum rather than something we either have or do not have. Mental health is about managing the way we live, managing the challenges we face, and feeling good about ourselves every day.
We identify children with mental health problems when their behaviour tells us that they are not coping (not just having a bad day today but not coping over a period of time), that they are stressed, that they feel bad about themselves and that they are seeking loving relationships but unable to achieve these.
It’s hard to identify what causes mental health problems in children.
There can be underlying genetic vulnerabilities: for example we know that possession of a particular gene makes us more likely to experience depression, but we could live all our lives without experiencing depression even when we have this genetic code if we do not experience any major life stressors.
Mental health problems arise from a complex mixture of biological, psychological and social factors and the old fashioned thinking which suggests parents are to blame is definitely not accepted any more.
We can help protect children from developing mental health problems by making sure that they have warm and loving relationships.
There is a lot of evidence now that shows that loving relationships are a major contributor to our wellbeing: one study even showed that caring, supportive relationships can extend our longevity.
We need to support children to learn the necessary skills to make friends and to manage their inter-personal relationships effectively. Of course children bicker and fight but our support may be necessary to help these fights to be transitory.
We need to support children to identify their emotions and express these in ways that are acceptable to their families and their communities.
We need to help children learn the skills they need to know to experience success in their learning (nothing succeeds like success – every achievement is a building block helping children feel good about themselves and it is our role to identify these successes, no matter how small, and celebrate them).
We need to make sure that parents are supported so that they can be there for their children: so that they have the time and the emotional energy to provide a stable and loving home.
We need to ensure that children have supportive educational experiences and we are blessed in Armidale because we have such good quality education options available for our children.
Parents can talk with their children’s educators if they are even a little worried about their child’s social and emotional skills.
The best outcomes happen when parents and educators work together to ensure children’s mental health is maximised. Information is now much more readily available about children’s mental health and for those who are interested the KidsMatter website has lots of information - https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/
MARGARET SIMS is Professor of Early Childhood, University of New England.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.