As early childhood educators, children’s mental health and wellbeing is always a top priority. Mental health challenges can impact many, and children are no exception. While children can be resilient and adaptable, their mental health can be affected which can in turn can affect other areas of their lives.
There are many reasons why a child may experience mental health challenges, such as the impact of family separations, relationship problems, moving home, developmental challenges, social disadvantage, experiencing mistreatment, illness or loss of loved ones. This is why keeping an eye on children’s mental health must be a priority.
Looking out for children’s mental health
Looking out for children’s mental health is essential. To do this, it’s important for educators and parents to know what to look for. While some signs may be obvious, others are not and mental health troubles may exhibit differently in children when compared to adults.
Signs that a child may need extra support for their mental health and wellbeing might be physical or emotional and include:
- Change in behaviour, especially seeming sad or upset
- Crying often
- Frequent worrying or feeling scared
- Regression in areas such as toilet training or sleeping
- Increased separation anxiety
- Difficulty paying attention
- Lack of energy
- Complaining of stomach aches, feeling sick or other pain that doesn’t appear to have a physical cause
- Loss of appetite, eating troubles
Staying on the look-out for changes in a child that may suggest they are struggling with their mental wellbeing is key to being able to jump in and offer support quickly.
How to support children’s mental health
Like many areas of health, prevention is ideal. Supporting children’s wellbeing at all times can reduce the likelihood of mental health issues arising. There are many ways you can do this — let’s take a look at a few.
One key way we can all keep tabs on mental wellbeing is through keeping the conversation going. Make regular times to check in with children about how they are feeling. Ask simple questions about what they have been thinking about, what is making them feel happy, sad or anything else they are going through. If questions don’t work, let a child know that you have noticed they seem sad or unhappy and that that is okay. Encourage open communications with all trusted adults so children have many people they can reach out to. Don’t forget, listening is an important part of effective communication too.
Even when things feel uncertain, aim to reassure children. Let them know they can ask questions about what is happening in the world or just in their world and you can talk it through together. Tell them it’s normal to have a range of feelings and that it is a great idea to talk to people about your feelings, good and bad.
Children thrive on routine, and while mitigating factors can impact their usual routine, try to maintain familiarity in routines for them to follow. Children find comfort in knowing what’s happening next. Keep them in the know about what each day will involve and try to have familiar anchor points each day such as a family meal together.
Give children tools
There are many ways we can all support or improve our mental health and it can be quite simple. Showing children that they already have the tools within them to feel better and more calm is valuable for life. Teach children mindfulness and breathing exercises as a way of helping them to slow down and be present in the moment. This calms the body and mind while also bringing relief from worries about the future.
Play is crucial for children and is easy to come by. Make a point of incorporating play and exploration into every day. Think of sensory activities like play dough or sand, explore the outdoors and get up close and personal with nature, utilise online play-based learning initiatives and more.
Role model positive behaviours
While exploring how to support children’s mental health and wellbeing, it’s vital that we reflect on our own. As educators, parents and any other person who has a key role in children’s lives, our our own wellbeing can have a huge impact on theirs. Find the support you need to assist with your mental health to ensure you are equipped to help children too. This might be utilising some of the strategies above, or seeking professional support.
Reaching out for extra support
There’s no shame in needing additional help or professional support to manage children’s mental health or your own. In fact, reaching out for support when it is needed is commendable.
There are a number of resources that can be useful when children’s mental health is of concern — they’re listed below. Your local doctor can also be a valuable support person and offer suggestions or specific professional support as needed.
Children’s mental health resources
Kids Helpline – Provides private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25.
Website: www.kidshelpline.com.au Telephone: 1800 55 1800
Beyond Blue – Provides information, and support for depression, anxiety and suicide prevention.
Website: www.beyondblue.org.au Telephone: 1300 224 636
Headspace – Provides young people with information and resources on mental health, physical health, work and study support, and alcohol and other drug services.
Website: www.headspace.org.au Telephone: 1800 650 890
Lifeline Australia – Provide access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.
Website: www.lifeline.org.au Telephone: 13 11 14
Keep checking in and supporting children and each other as we navigate life’s and ups and downs together.