Health & Safety

Children's Mental Health and Wellbeing

What is children’s mental health?

Mental health is about the way a child thinks and feels about themselves and their world. It’s about how they handle their everyday lives, including making and keeping friends, keeping up with school work and getting along with family members. Like our physical health, there are times we feel well and happy, and times when we don’t feel so great. As children develop and grow they can experience some bumps along the way, which may influence their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

What are the warning signs of mental health problems in children?

Children do not show symptoms of poor mental health in the same way that adults do and symptoms must be considered in terms of their developmental stage. It can be difficult to distinguish between normal developmental behaviours and emerging mental health problems as children’s behaviour can change quickly as they grow. For example, children may find it hard to concentrate and may lose interest in school work and play. Some may even refuse to go to school, while others complain of feeling bored or lonely, even when they have friends. Changes in behaviour may be gradual or may happen quite suddenly. The Children’s Hospital Westmead provides a number of fact sheets for parents on specific mental illnesses, such as; anxiety, disruptive disorders, depression and anorexia nervosa. For more information visit:

When to seek help?

Parents or carers are often the first to recognise that their child is experiencing difficulties with their emotions or behaviour. When children are experiencing ongoing distress they may have difficulties with coping, getting on with others, and keeping an interest in what they are doing. It is important to take note of any significant changes in your child’s usual pattern of behaviour including their eating and sleeping patterns. When the behaviour is distressing to your child and those around him or her, and persists over a period of time or across situations (e.g. at home and at school) then it is time to get support or advice. It is important to speak with an experienced professional who works with children and understands mental illness.  The services available to you may vary depending on where you live but may include; GPs, community health centres, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, private and school counsellors and Medicare Locals. Getting effective help early often prevents more serious problems developing at a later stage. It may also be useful to find out about how you child is behaving in the school environment.

Mental illness and parents and carers

One in five adults experienced a mental illness in the previous 12 months (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007), some of these people are parents. If you’re a parent with a mental illness and need some support, it’s important that you get help as early as possible. There are also services and programs to support you, if you are a carer or have a family member who is experiencing a mental illness. The National Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) Initiative aims to promote better mental health outcomes for children (0-18 years) of parents with a mental health problem or disorder. Information for family members across Australia where a parent has a mental illness and for people who care for and work with them can be found on their website –


Australian Bureau of Statistics (2007) National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results. ABS, Canberra.

About mental illness

It might help to read this with an adult.

Lots of people have a mental illness!


What is mental illness?

  • Mental illness is like a broken leg – you can’t see it.
  • It is an illness that changes how someone acts, thinks and feels.
  • There are lots of different kinds of mental illness.

You can read more at the Teens Section.

Mental illness can make parents act differently

  • They might get angry more easily, or cry a lot.  Or shut themselves in their room.
  • Remember it is the illness that makes them act this way. It is not your fault.

Is it my fault?

  • It is not your fault if your Mum or Dad has a mental illness.
  • It is not a parent’s fault if they have a mental illness.

Lots of things can help

  • Your Mum or Dad might see a special doctor for help.
  • There are some medicines that can help too.
  • There are things you can do to help too.

Will I get a mental illness?

  • Most people with a Mum or Dad with a mental illness don’t get one themselves!
  • There are some really good things you can do to stay strong and well.

Will they get better?

  • People do get better from mental illness.
  • Sometimes life can be different from what it was before – but your Mum or Dad can still feel better.

What if I am scared?

  • Sometimes your Mum or Dad might act in a scary way.
  • They might want to hurt themselves or another person.
  • If you are very worried call the emergency number: 000.

If you want to talk to someone – call Kids Helpline ANY TIME on 1800 55 1800.

What causes children’s mental health difficulties?


What kinds of mental health difficulties do children experience?

Children’s mental health difficulties are generally classifi ed as being one of two types: ‘internalising’ and ‘externalising’. Children with internalising difficulties show behaviours that are inhibited and over-controlled. They may have a nervous or anxious temperament and be worried, fearful and/or withdrawn. Children with externalising difficulties show behaviours that are under-controlled. They may have a more challenging temperament, shown in impulsive or reactive behaviour. Sometimes this pattern can lead to difficulties with attention, aggression or oppositional behaviour.

Externalising behaviours cause diffi culties for others as well as for the children themselves. It is not uncommon for children to show behaviours associated with both internalising and externalising patterns of behaviour. The typical features associated with each pattern are summarised below.

Features associated with children’s ‘internalising’ difficulties include:

  • nervous/anxious temperament
  • excessive worrying
  • pessimistic thinking
  • withdrawn behaviour
  • peer relationship diffi culties (eg can be isolated).

Features associated with children’s ‘externalising’difficulties include:

  • challenging temperament
  • reduced problem-solving skills
  • attention difficulties, hyperactivity
  • oppositional behaviour (eg doesn’t like to be told what to do; won’t follow rules)
  • aggressive behaviour.

Children with ADHD often show severe externalising difficulties. Children with other serious behaviour problems also show externalising patterns of behaviour, such as persistent aggression. Children with severe internalising diffi culties may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or with depression.

How Mental Health difficulties affect children (PDF)


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