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4 things your child needs in their mental health toolkit

As parents, carers and teachers, you can help equip children with the tools to foster positive mental health – here’s how.

It’s estimated that one in seven1 Australian kids experience mental health issues in their childhood.

With potential family and friendship problems, body image issues, bullying, abuse or worry, combined with childhood being a vulnerable time of life, it’s important to look out for children and adolescents.2

The World Health Organisation3 says that mental health is part of being a healthy child. They define mental health as a state of wellbeing, not just the absence of mental illness, which means the aim of adults is to help children thrive2, not just cope.

As parents and teachers, there are tools you can help equip their children with to foster positive mental health.

The ability to build resilience

“Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity, whether it’s something big or small,” says Hugh Van Cuylenburg, founder of The Resilience Project. “The ability to cope when unexpected things happen will, to a large extent, dictate a child’s wellbeing and happiness.”

For a child, those tough times might mean anything1 from moving home, changing schools, studying for an exam, a traumatic experience or dealing with the death of a loved one.

But, while it’s tempting to try to protect kids, it’s important to let them deal with the challenges that come their way. “One of the ways that we can support the development of a resilient child is to stop wrapping them in bubble wrap and making sure nothing goes wrong for them,” says Hugh. “Let them stuff up, let them make mistakes and let them fail. Adversity breeds resilience.”

The Royal Children’s Hospital  says that a resilient child is one who:

  • Has positive expectations of themselves
  • Feels positive about the future
  • Has a sense of independence
  • Holds good communication, problem-solving and social skills
  • Is able to regulate their own emotions
  • Has positive and lasting relationships with friends and family

A lifestyle that aides positive mental health

Simple lifestyle factors can make the world of difference to a child’s mental health.

“The links between physical wellness and mental wellbeing are very strong,” Hugh says. A healthy lifestyle can be fostered through eating well, getting a good amount of sleep, exercising regularly and maintaining some routines (like family meals and a story before bed) that help a child to feel secure5.

“Sleep is absolutely vital to a child and adolescent’s wellbeing: an adolescent requires eight to 10 hours a night and a primary school child needs 10 to 12 hours,” says Hugh. “We also encourage 30 minutes of exercise or activity every day, and a good diet is also crucial; minimise processed foods and sugar and remember that vegetables are fantastic!”

A network of trusted adults

Children’s friendships are vital for their mental wellbeing, but it’s not just other kids who can support each other. Having trusted adults around is important for kids, too.5

“Having adults that they can trust and feel supported by is absolutely pivotal to a child’s mental health,” says Hugh. “The research says that when trauma occurs in a child’s life, having an adult in their lives that can be there for them means they’re more likely to come through it and thrive at the other end. It’s really important to be there for your kids.”

From parents and teachers to aunts, uncles and family friends, as a trusted adult you can play a role by5:

  • Listening to the children in your life
  • Building networks with the other adults in your child’s life
  • Role modelling positive friendships and relationships
  • Speaking with other trusted adults when a child needs extra support

Take care of yourself

Taking care of children is important but, as the saying goes, you can’t give from an empty bucket. Self-care is vital so that you – the most important6 people in your child’s life – can be there for the children and adolescents around you.

“The better place we are in mentally, the more able we are to care for and raise our kids,” Hugh says. “When we as parents are in a good place mentally, we are more attentive, more present and have a more positive disposition about us as we parent. This has a huge impact on our kids.”

With all of these things in your child’s toolkit, their mental wellbeing can be supported and given the environment to thrive.