Things can happen in children’s lives that make the risk of developing mental health problems more likely. It is usually not possible to eliminate all the risk factors that affect your children, but there are things you can do to reduce the impact of stress and help them build strengths for effective coping. The following suggestions identify the sorts of things you can do to support children’s resilience in the face of challenging circumstances.
How you can help
- Spend time with children by having fun playing games, going to the park or going somewhere together as a family.
- Try to maintain routines as much as possible. Routines and consistency help children feel secure.
- Build and maintain supportive relationships with family, friends and early childhood staff. Talk with them about how they can best support you and your child during hard times. Tell staff about any concerning behaviour you are noticing at home.
- Try to help children to understand and manage their feelings; this can help them develop coping skills.
- Help children learn to cope with loss and change by providing support and reassurance, honesty and clarity. Help them also to understand that loss and stress are a normal part of life.
- Acknowledge children’s feelings and try to understand and respect them, especially when they are going through a difficult time. Offer support and reassurance by asking questions and letting them talk about their feelings.
- Try to support children in building their internal protective factors (eg good communication and problem-solving and social skills) by acknowledging and encouraging their skills when guiding their behaviour.
Listen to children’s concerns
Having a caring adult to turn to when they are troubled, someone who will listen, understand without judging, and help them solve problems, is a critical protective factor for children’s mental health. Listening to children and understanding their concerns lets them know they are important to you. Remember, however, that children may not always be able to explain how they feel. By observing their behaviour and gently inquiring about it you can often get a clearer picture of how they are feeling.
Children often worry that the bad things they experience will happen again or get worse. For example, in a family breakup, when one parent or carer leaves the family, children often become anxious that the remaining parent or carer will also leave them. Similar worries are common when someone dies or is hospitalised. Often these kinds of fears are expressed through behaviours rather than words, such as becoming clingy, or being fearful about sleeping by themselves. Showing you understand children’s fears and providing reassurance and support is important for helping them cope. Making sure that children know what to do and who to seek help from in case you are unavailable or unwell is also very important – particularly when chronic illness or stress may affect your capacity to provide support.
Various kinds of stress and change can be very disruptive to family life. Maintaining regular routines, such as bedtimes and mealtimes, reduces disruptive impacts and helps to provide a sense of stability and security for children. Similarly, children are reassured by knowing that a responsible adult is taking care of them and looking after their needs.
Build children’s strengths – and allow for vulnerabilities
Providing encouragement and positive feedback for children’s developing coping skills helps them to build conﬁdence in their ability to manage difﬁcult situations. Acknowledging and appreciating the help and support that children provide to you during stressful times also helps to build their strengths.
At the same time, it is important to give children permission to not always have to be strong. Children who take on signiﬁcant caring roles when parents or carers are struggling often hide their vulnerabilities. Their desire to avoid burdening parents and carers can cause additional hardship for these children, who need to know that support is available to them as well.
Talk to school staff
School staff can provide more effective support for children at school when they understand some of the pressures they may be facing in other parts of their lives. It is often very reassuring for children as well as for parents and carers to know that teachers or other school staff understand their difﬁculties and are ready to provide support. Staff at your child’s school may also be able to provide you with support and advice, or help you ﬁnd support services that can assist you and your children.
Seek additional help
If your child shows signs of emotional or behavioural difﬁculties, it is important to seek professional help early, so that problems can be addressed before they get worse. Getting support for yourself, through family and friendship networks, your child’s school, or mental health or community services, is also very important.
Getting support helps to build your own resilience so you can provide more effective care for your children. For more have a look at our information about knowing when to get help.