Does a positive childhood protect kids from mental illness?

Blog Image for article Does a positive childhood protect kids from mental illness?

A happy childhood is full of fun, love and discovery, but according to a new study, these great early experiences don’t guarantee children's mental health to be good later in life.

Research by the University of South Australia and the University of Canberra has found that children raised in stable and supportive environments can still grow up to have mental health problems.

Here, we wrap our minds around the research and see how it may be possible for children to guard against poor mental health, with parents’ help.

How common is a mental illness disorder in Australia?

Mental health disorders are prevalent in this country, both in the early and adult years.

As a guide, the Young Minds Matter survey found that childhood mental health disorders had affected one in seven school students (aged four to 17) in the previous 12 months.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was the most common child mental health disorder for ages four to 11 (it was more common in boys), followed by anxiety disorders (which were most prevalent amongst girls).

By adulthood, almost half of all Australians (aged 16 to 85) will experience mental illness at some point in their life, with anxiety, depression and substance use disorders being the most common conditions.

These mental health challenges come at a high personal and monetary cost, and the new study is welcome because it suggests that a child’s ability to adapt and cope may help them respond to risk factors for poor mental health.

What did the study discover about early life experiences and later mental disorders problems?

The University of South Australia says, ‘It’s well understood that a difficult childhood can increase the likelihood of mental illness’ in kids, but this study tells us that positive early life experiences do not always protect a child from poor child mental health later in life.

Specifically, ‘The study reaffirmed that people who had adverse and unpredictable early life experiences had elevated symptoms of poor mental health (including depression and paranoia).’

However, it also highlights the indiscriminate nature of mental illness, because children who grew up in steady and supportive environments were also found to be at risk of experiencing anxiety symptoms as adults.

This study shows that mental health conditions are not solely determined by early life events, and the researchers believe that, ‘It’s our ability to adapt – or rather not adapt – to unexpected scenarios that might be influencing mental health.’

Although more research is needed to test this thinking, lead researcher, Bianca Kahl says, ‘We suspect that it’s our expectations about our environments and our ability to adapt to scenarios when our expectations are not being met, that may be influencing our experiences of distress.’

She adds, ‘If, as children, we learn how to adapt to change, and we learn how to cope when things do not go our way, we may be in a better position to respond to stress and other risk factors for poor mental health.’

As a parent, how can you protect and promote your child’s mental health?

Your love, care, support and guidance are vital, and even though some children will experience mental health challenges despite having positive childhood experiences, Health Navigator NZ says it’s important that your baby, child and teen have:

  • A sense of belonging in all settings
  • A significant person in their life
  • The ability to cope, and
  • A range of positive experiences.

They say children most need these things:

  • Food, clothing, warmth, shelter and love (the basics)
  • To feel safe and secure
  • Cuddles and good touching
  • Lots of smiles, praise and encouragement
  • Talking and listening
  • New experiences
  • Respect for their feelings, and
  • Your time and care.

Sufficient sleep, regular physical activity and a healthy diet will all help your child’s mental health and wellbeing, and as a parent, you play a key role in teaching your child to cope with challenges and adapt to change for the good of their mental health.

Why is resilience so important in childhood?

Resilience is your child’s ability to cope with life’s ups and downs and bounce back from difficulties.

The greater your child’s resilience, the more easily they’ll be able to deal with challenges (like starting school, moving house or losing a loved one); although some kids are naturally resilient, parents, carers, grandparents and other significant adults can all help to build resilience in youngsters.   

Beyond Blue says you can help your child develop the skills, habits and attitudes needed for building resilience by helping them to:

Resilience will help your child cope with current difficulties and future ones, and Beyond Blue backs up the researchers’ hypothesis about coping mechanisms putting kids in a better position to respond to stress, thus resulting to good mental health later in their life.

They say resilience is important for kids’ mental health and, ‘Children with greater resilience are better able to manage stress, which is a common response to difficult events [and] is a risk factor for mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression if the level of stress is severe or ongoing.’

How else can you reduce your child’s stress and help them adapt to change?

The education experts at Bright Horizons offer some practical ways to lower stress levels and teach your child to thrive in times of change.

Whether your child is moving to a new early learning service, expecting a new sibling or adapting to another upheaval, Bright Horizons suggests that you:

  1. Give your child advance warning of the change, e.g. you might explain why they’ll be moving to a new early learning service before the move happens.
  2. Maintain continuity as much as possible during a big change, e.g. by delaying your toddler’s move to a big bed if a new sibling is about to arrive.
  3. Give your child extra attention during times of change, ensuring you answer all their questions, and plan an hour and a half each week where they have your undivided attention.
  4. Accept that your child might regress to earlier behaviours when a change happens, e.g. they might stop sleeping through the night or start having toileting accidents again.
  5. Accept that your child might go through a grieving process as they ‘navigate new waters.’ In this case, you’re encouraged to respond by listening and reminding them of all the positives the change brings.

What should you do if you’re worried about your child’s mental health?

As we’ve seen above, mental health disorders do affect many children, and Beyond Blue says ‘Families are often in the best position to spot issues with a child’s emotions, thinking or behaviour.’

They encourage you to watch for the following signs of concern (in ages six to 12), and speak to your GP or a mental health professional if your child’s emotions and behaviour have changed in these ways:

  • They have frequent, unexplained temper tantrums
  • They have unusual fears
  • Your child is finding it difficult to go to sleep or stay asleep
  • They have feelings of sadness and hopelessness that don’t go away
  • They’re avoiding friends/family and wanting to be alone most of the time
  • Your child is refusing to go to preschool/school on a regular basis
  • They’re exhibiting hyperactive behaviour or constant movement beyond regular playing
  • There’s been a noticeable disinterest or decline in their school performance
  • They frequently react in aggressive ways (beyond what’s reasonably expected in the situation)
  • They’re having trouble concentrating, paying attention or being organised
  • You notice any other changes from their usual way of acting over a short length of time

Healthdirect says these organisations can also help if you’re worried about your child’s mental wellbeing:

  • Kids Helpline (which provides phone and online counselling for ages five to 25)
  • Lifeline
  • Parentline in your state or territory
  • eheadspace (which offers online and phone support and counselling for ages 12 to 25 and their family and friends)
  • SANE Australia (for people living with mental illness and their carers)
  • (which is a youth mental health service)

Together, you and your child can build resilience and work through changes, and although the research shows that a happy childhood doesn’t necessarily guard against poor mental health later in life, your support, consistency and love are so important early on and as your child grows.


University of South Australia

Health Navigator New Zealand

Beyond Blue

Bright Horizons


Further reading

How to build resilience in your child

Key ways to support your child’s mental health

Expert advice to help your child transition to school

You may also like

3m read
How to raise a body-positive preschooler
Parenting & Family

By the time they start school, children's bodies have learned to run, jump, swim, dance, scoot, and more; so, it's start...

Read more
6m read
How to safeguard your child’s wellbeing during the pandemic
Health & Wellbeing

Research by Camp Australia examined the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on children’s health and wellbeing.

Read more
6m read
Mental wellbeing tips from the Black Dog Institute
Health & Wellbeing

Mental wellbeing tips from the Black Dog Institute.

Read more