Kids Health Info

Mental health – infants and young children

  • Mental health is the emotional, social and behavioural wellbeing of any infant, child, young person or adult. All children, no matter their age, can have mental health problems. Good mental health is important for healthy development, and research tells us that recognising and addressing problems early can help improve outcomes.

    Having good mental health involves:

    • being able to play, learn and be social with others
    • having healthy relationships and close bonds with family and friends
    • managing feelings and responses in a range of situations
    • being able to cope with challenges
    • having a positive outlook
    • developing and having good self-esteem.

    Signs and symptoms

    Mental health difficulties can occur in children of all ages, and can result in social, emotional and behavioural problems. Babies and toddlers can have mental health difficulties for similar reasons to older children and adults. They learn about emotions and how to manage them by watching and copying grown-ups who are important to them.

    It can be difficult to know if your baby or young child’s behaviour is a result of a mental health problem. The following symptoms may be a sign of social or emotional concerns in a baby, toddler or young child, especially if you notice these issues being present most of the time and affecting your child’s ability to cope with day-to-day life at home, childcare, kindergarten or school.

    Babies and toddlers (0-4 years)

    • Consistently not sleeping well or having a change in their sleeping patterns (eg. more or less than usual).
    • Consistently not wanting to eat (food refusal).
    • Seeming really distressed, restless, grumpy, or irritable.
    • Being less playful or having limited types of play or games that they like
    • Consistently not wanting to be apart from a parent or carer (excessive clinginess).
    • Not wanting to make or keep eye contact with you (gaze avoidance).
    • Not crying or making few attempts to get their needs met (like being fed, having their nappy changed).
    • Yelling, kicking, hitting, biting and damaging things around them (it is normal for children to have tantrums at times).
    • Having lots of difficulty calming down when upset.

    Children (5-11 years)

    • Ongoing worry or anxiety that interferes with your child’s ability to go to school and to be confident with others.
    • Ongoing refusal to follow rules at home or school.
    • Attention, memory and concentration difficulties.
    • Difficulty making and maintaining friendships.
    • Obsessions or compulsions that interfere with everyday life.
    • Withdrawal (from activities or socialising with friends or family).
    • Ongoing guilt or negative feelings.
    • Playing in a forceful, violent or destructive way.
    • Bullying other children or pets.
    • Not sleeping well (nightmares) or having a change in their sleeping patterns (eg. more or less than usual).
    • Consistently not wanting to eat (food refusal).
    • Having toileting difficulties, including bed wetting.
    • Frequent physical complaints such as headaches or tummy aches.  

    What causes mental health problems?                  

    The exact cause for most mental heath problems is not known. Many factors combine to affect a child’s social and emotional wellbeing, including factors from their environment and factors they inherit from their family. It’s important to remember that difficulties with mental health in children are no-one’s fault, and no-one is to blame. 

    Babies and toddlers (0-4 years)

    Lots of different things can be stressful for a parent, baby or toddler, or both. Things that can affect mental health in infants and toddlers include:

    • Something traumatic happening (eg. a hurtful, shocking or painful event).
    • Being sick or having a disability.
    • Being born very early (prematurity).
    • Having a slower or different pattern of development.
    • Losing something important (eg. someone close, a home to live in).
    • Parental mental health difficulties (eg. post-natal depression).

    Children (5-11 years)

    School-age children will experience a number of changes in their social, emotional, personal and physical development. These changes can be challenging, and children this age may experience the following:

    • Worry about separating from you or someone familiar, especially in new situations.
    • Developing fears or phobias (eg. about dogs, spiders, snakes, water).
    • Challenging limits or boundaries you set and seeming to be defiant.
    • Difficulties with relationships (eg. minor clashes with their friends or siblings).

    How you can help

    Building resilience in children helps them to cope and recover more easily from difficult situations (eg. family breakdowns, making mistakes, bullying or a falling out with friends). Having strong positive relationships and spending time with your child is key to building resilience.

    Developing the following skills from an early age can also help build resilience in your child:

    • Self-respect and respectful relationships with others (highlighting strengths, building self-esteem).
    • Optimistic thinking (realistic thinking, positive attitudes, problem solving).
    • Social skills (making and keeping friends, resolving conflict, cooperation with others).
    • Achieving or getting things done (building confidence, encouraging responsibility, knowing when to ask for help).

    Most children learn to overcome challenges on their own so give them an opportunity to problem solve before you interfere. You can also try problem-solving together with your child and help them to develop coping strategies for future challenges.

    When to see a doctor

    Often parents don’t feel confident in seeking help for their child’s social, emotional and behavioural wellbeing. It’s important for you and your child to have support. If your child has ongoing issues socialising, controlling feelings appropriately, learning, or meeting milestones, it can be helpful to talk about your concerns with your GP, maternal child health nurse or school or kindergarten teacher.

    If you or your child are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm, contact emergency services on 000.

    For more information

    There are many community services available if you have concerns about your child’s mental health or you’d like more information:


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    Disclaimer
    This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.