Only one in three Australian parents feel confident identifying if their child has a mental health issue and more than half don’t know where they would go to for help, according to a recent national child health poll.

The findings of the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne National Child Health Poll, revealed a further third of parents believe that mental health issues in children are best left to resolve themselves over time.

When these findings are juxtaposed against research by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute which found almost one in four young Australians have a serious mental health issue, it raises concerns that some children are not being identified or supported.

Director of the poll, paediatrician Dr Anthea Rhodes said children can develop similar mental health issues to adults, but these often presented in different ways in young people.

“Ignoring signs that may indicate a child is in need of help can result in the problem becoming more entrenched and much harder to treat,” she said.

“Even if parents are unsure, there is no harm in having a conversation with their GP or school counsellor about any emotional, social or behavioural difficulties they think their child may be experiencing.”

The poll also revealed that parents who checked in and connected with their kids most days were more confident in recognising if their child was experiencing a mental health issue.

However, one in three parents said it was hard to find to connect with parents of young children saying they were unsure how to talk or engage with their child.

“Life is busy and full of distractions, but parents can make a difference to the mental health and wellbeing of their kids by finding ways to focus on and connect with them as part of everyday life,” Dr Rhodes said.

“It can be as simple as taking the time to read them a book, eating a meal together or having a chat on the way to school,” she said.

Information and resources created out of the poll survey and research include important advice for parents, including signs to watch for:

Signs Parents Should Watch For

Signs in younger children:

  • sadness a lot of the time
  • ongoing worries or fears
  • obsessions or compulsive habits that interfere with everyday life
  • ongoing problems getting along with other children or fitting in at school, kinder or child care
  • aggressive or consistently disobedient behaviour, such as frequent yelling, kicking, hitting, biting or damaging things around them
  • frequent physical complaints, such as headaches or tummy aches
  • sleep problems, including nightmares.

Signs in older children:

  • having trouble coping with everyday activities
  • seeming down, feeling things are hopeless, being frequently tearful or lacking motivation
  • having trouble eating or sleeping
  • difficulties with attention, memory or concentration, a drop in school performance, or suddenly refusing to go to school
  • avoiding friends or withdrawing from social contact
  • complaints of frequent physical pain, such as headache, tummy ache or backache
  • being aggressive or antisocial, for example, missing school, getting into trouble with the police, fighting or stealing
  • losing weight or being very anxious about weight or physical appearance
  • repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • self-harming behaviours.

How parents can get help:

  • start by talking with your child about their concerns and help them to access appropriate help
  • speak with your GP or child health nurse, who may help your child directly or refer them to another professional
  • speak with your child’s school, kindergarten or childcare centre for advice and support in getting appropriate help · call a helpline (such as Parentline) for immediate support

More Resources for Parents

Leading Australian adolescent and family psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg hosted a webinar recently on anxiety and children which you can access here.

Dr Carr-Gregg has also has put together a range of resources and services to support young people and their families which can also be accessed here.