Mental health for kids

Key points about mental health for kids

  • There are several key things you can do to support your child’s mental health through childhood and into their teenage years.
  • Your child's mental health is affected by what you give them from the moment they are born. The most important thing to do is to love and care for them. This includes doing things so they:
    • feel a sense of belonging 
    • have a key person in their life such as a parent, grandparent or carer
    • develop the ability to cope with life
    • enjoy a range of positive experiences. 
Māori man with 2 tamariki on a trampoline
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Video – an animation designed to give young people aged 11–14 a common language and understanding of what mental health means and how you can look after it.

(Anna Freud, 2018)

Here are the top 10 things children need:

  • the basics – food, clothing, warmth, shelter and love
  • to feel safe and secure
  • cuddles and good touching
  • lots of smiles
  • praise and encouragement
  • talking
  • listening
  • new experiences
  • respect for their feelings
  • your time and care.

Regularly spending quality time with your child gives you a chance to check in with them about how they are doing and the things going on in their lives. If you think your child may be anxious or depressed, talk with them about how they are feeling. Make sure they know they have someone to talk to.

Young girl whispers secret to her dad

Image credit: Canva

Here are some tips by age to help them develop in a way that supports good mental health development:

Babies up to 1 year

Babies need to feel safe with the people around them, and to be kept safe from things that could harm them. They cannot yet control their emotions or understand logic, but how you respond to them now will make a difference to how they develop these in future. Soothe them when they are upset and name their feelings, eg, “I can see you are feeling very disappointed/angry/frustrated right now”.

Toddlers (1–3 years)

In this stage children need to start learning to think and solve problems, and how to appropriately express and handle feelings. They are developing a sense of themselves, and learning empathy and how to cooperate with others. Interact in positive ways in your own relationships. Play with your child and show them how to take turns and to use words to express needs, wants and feelings. Talk about feelings and how to recognise and cope with them. 

Preschoolers (3–5 years)

In this stage children become very aware of themselves and of the people and things around them. Help your child to express feelings, and to connect thinking, feeling and appropriate behaviour. Talk to them about feelings and appropriate behaviours – in this stage they are learning to recognise, express and control their emotions. Reward positive behaviours with notice and praise.

School age (6–12 years)

In this stage children are developing their sense of self. They are learning and practising a wide range of new and essential practical, social and emotional skills. Model control and respect for others in your relationships. Acknowledge their negative emotions and talk with them about strategies to deal with them. Encourage them to come up with these themselves. Praise both effort and achievement, and help them to deal with disappointment.

Teenagers (13–18 years)

In this stage children are developing their emotional, practical and social independence. Huge changes are taking place in the brain and the limbic system (emotion) is very much in the driving seat. Expect moodiness, mood swings, dramatic outbursts, egocentricity and provocative behaviour. Novelty-seeking and an increased need for social connection with peers make this a time of both risk of harm to themselves and others, and of potential for great personal and creative growth. The risk of harm is increased by isolation from adults, so maintain strong, secure relationships and open, respectful lines of communication with your teen.

A good home contributes hugely to kids’ mental wellbeing. If that’s in place, the school can get on with teaching. But when there are issues at home, such as abuse or alcohol and drug use, children’s self-worth can be very poor. 

School-aged children spend close to half their waking hours at school, so it’s important their mental health is protected there. Tell teachers what’s happening in your kids’ lives so they and the school are prepared to respond to their needs. If the child misses out on learning due to issues at home or with their mental wellbeing, this will have long-term effects on them. 

Tips for schools

  • Schools must be safe emotionally, socially and physically.
  • Staff and students must be encouraged to reach their full potential.
  • Self-worth for everyone should be fostered through policies, programmes and practices.
  • Schools should model positive mental health.
  • Effort as well as achievement should be acknowledged.
  • All actions and communications should be respectful.
  • Teachers should be caring and nurturing and foster warm relationships.
  • Young people should be encouraged to seek help when they need it and have access to counseling services.
  • Schools should promote resilience and positive thinking.
  • Connectedness to others should be encouraged.
  • Schools should support and refer students showing signs of mental health problems or who are at risk.
  • There should be easy means of accessing immediate crisis support.
  • Schools should involve students in working in partnership with teachers and parents.

A number of district health boards run free clinics, such as the Kari Centre in Auckland DHB, for kids with a mental health problem. Some also run clinics for kids with a parent who has a mental illness. Ask your GP or mental health team whether this would be helpful for you. 

School Based Health Services aim to improve students’ access to a range of health services and currently operates in consenting schools from deciles 1 to 3, Teen Parent Units and Alternative Education facilities. Nurses help students access relevant primary health services, provide youth development checks and can refer students experiencing mental health problems to the right supports or services. 

If you need help with parenting, phone the Parenting Helpline 0800 568 856 for free help and advice.

Just listen – stressed kids' plea to parents(external link) NZ Herald
Family change(external link) Skylight, NZ
Common Ground(external link) Common Ground was a New Zealand project that aimed to help parents, families, whānau and friends to support young people to manage hard times and enjoy happier lives.
Childhood trauma and the brain(external link) (video) UK Trauma Council, UK
Healthy development of a child's brain(external link) (video) Dr Mike Evans, Canada

Resources

How to help kids keep calm(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Experiencing frustration, disappointment, fear and jealousy is challenging, even as adults. This guide explores how can we help our tamariki understand and manage strong emotions.
How to help kids manage worries(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Our tamariki mightn’t have to pay bills, cook dinners or organise carpools but just like us they face daily demands and worries, and what seems trivial to us can be important to them. This guide explores what we can do to help tamariki manage worries.
How to help kids feel good and have fun(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Tamariki need the basics of life – like food, warmth, shelter and clothing – but we ultimately want them to feel loved, secure and happy. This guide explores how you can foster their self-esteem and help them feel good.
How to help kids be grateful and kind(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Being grateful and kind boosts the way you feel, and tends to make you a more likeable human being. This guide explores how you can help tamariki learn these important skills.
How to help your kids ... sleep!(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ When kids have sleep issues, it’s challenging … for everyone! But rest assured, things can improve. This guide shares some tips on how you can help.
Looking after yourself – dads(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Being a dad can be awesome … it can also be challenging, confusing, frustrating and tiring. As such, dads have got to look after yourselves.
Looking after yourself – mums(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Mums often prioritise everything and everybody before yourselves. So first up, recognise you still matter!
How to help your kids with diagnoses and differences(external link)All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Having a child with differences can be tricky for you and your child. This guide shares some things to try, based on the most up-to-date research.
How to talk your teen out of bad decisions(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Tattoos, sex, drugs, alcohol ... this guide shares top tips for building trust, encouraging conversation and empowering your teen to make smart choices around ‘the big stuff’.
How can I help my kids retain our culture?(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ As new immigrant parents, it can be both exciting and worrying when your children start to integrate into New Zealand life. This guide explores how to help them along, while retaining your family culture and beliefs.
How to get it right when kids come out or identify as another gender(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Supporting kids to be who they truly are can make a huge difference to their wellbeing. This guide shares top tips for staying their greatest source of support.
Helping your teens navigate social media(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Internet use can be a big concern for parents. This guide explores tips for teaching your kids to make good choices and stay safe (without having to go into battle)!
How do I get my kids to listen, talk, help out and focus on what really matters?(external link) All Right? and Sparklers, NZ Teens need to develop a certain amount of independence. This guide shares some quick ideas for fostering this while encouraging them to talk, listen and be at their best.
Parenting babies – up to 1 year(external link) Parenting Help, NZ
Parenting toddlers – 1 to 3 years(external link)Parenting Help, NZ
Parenting preschoolers – 3 to 5 years(external link) Parenting Help, NZ
Parenting school age – 6 to 12 years(external link) Parenting Help, NZ
Parenting teenagers – 13 to 18 years(external link) Parenting Help, NZ

References

  1. The 10 things kids need most(external link) NZ Child, Youth and Family
  2. Wellbeing at home and school(external link) Ministry of Education, NZ
  3. Ages and stages(external link) Parent Help, NZ

Brochures

how to help kids manage worries

How to help kids manage worries

All Right and Sparklers, NZ

how to help kids feel good and have fun

How to help kids feel good and have fun

All Right and Sparklers, NZ

how to help kids be grateful and kind

How to help kids be grateful and kind

All Right and Sparklers, NZ

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