It can be difficult to know when to be concerned about possible mental health difficulties in children. Getting in early and knowing when to get help can prevent children’s mental health difficulties from developing further.

Take time to observe your child

It is important throughout the process of investigation and treatment of children’s mental health difficulties that parents and carers develop knowledge on how mental health difficulties affect young children and older children. Children’s behaviours, emotions and thoughts can be influenced by a range of experiences and situations, which can be hard to distinguish. To help families recognise the level of concern present, it can be important to take the time to observe a child to determine how often, how long, how severe difficulties are and to understand what else is happening in their lives.

Key things to observe when you are concerned that a child may have mental health difficulties are:

  • Behaviour
  • Emotions
  • Thoughts
  • Learning
  • Social relationships.

Looking for all the B-E-T-L-S can allow you to get a clearer picture of a child’s difficulties and understand how a child responds in different settings. Learning about children through observations and using observation clues can assist this process as can understanding the signs for when professional attention is required.

Work together with the child’s school or early childhood service

When schools and early childhood services work together with families to recognise and support children with mental health difficulties, there are better outcomes for children. Component Three of the KidsMatter framework, Working with parents and carers, aims to create collaborative partnerships, so that educators and families can work together to support children. Effective partnerships are built on respect and trust, shared understanding and responsibility, a common goal and good communication. Effective communication is a two-way process and is particularly important to help recognise and seek support for children with possible mental health difficulties. When families and educators communicate effectively regarding a child’s behaviours, emotions and thoughts in a range of situations, they can understand each other’s concerns about the child and are better able to access appropriate professional support.

When professional support is needed

Often, through better understanding of a child and improved collaboration between families and educators, children receive the support they need to improve their mental health.

Sometimes help from a mental health professional is useful. It can often be helpful to continue to involve your child’s teacher or early childhood educators in the process, as the early childhood service or school may be able to further assist by providing more information and by helping to implement any strategies that have been suggested to support the child. 

Schools and early childhood services often have strong contacts with local health and community professionals and can recommend a service they think might be helpful.

GPs are also a good first contact point for suggestions for referrals to local services.

To access allied mental health services, you need to obtain a Mental Health Treatment Plan from your GP, so it is often a good idea to start with your GP for suggestions.

There are many different services and professionals who work with children and families that may be appropriate, and they can have different Medicare rebates. There are also different organisations with telephone lines for children and families as well as websites with resources for families.

Primary Health Networks and referrals

Primary Health Networks (PHNs) aim to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of health services for patients, and improve coordination of care to ensure patients receive the right care in the right place at the right time. PHNs have replaced the previous Medicare Locals. There are 31 PHNs across Australia and an interactive map locator can be used to find your closest PHN and provide specific information on mental healthcare services, website links and contact information.

When there are concerns about the development of a child’s mental health difficulties, schools and early childhood services can contact their local PHN directly to refer children and families to services accessible through the PHN. This helps overcome the previous barrier of families having to obtain referrals through their GP before making an appointment with the appropriate mental health care service provider. This helps children and families gain faster access to service providers that can assist with mental health difficulties.

Links and resources:

Neighbourhood map to find children and family services (including mental health services) in your local area

Websites with resources for families

Organisations with telephone lines for children and families

Services and professionals that work with children and families

Local services for child and family support

Find a psychologist

Positive mental health for parents and carers: Further resources