Does a positive childhood protect kids from mental illness?

Published on Wednesday, 21 April 2021
Last updated on Monday, 19 April 2021

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A happy childhood is full of fun, love and discovery, but according to an Australian study, these great early experiences don’t guarantee good mental health 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 a mental health disorder.

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 mental illness?

Mental health disorders affect many people, both in the early and adult years.

In Australia, the Young Minds Matter survey found that mental disorders had affected one in seven school students in the previous 12 months, with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) being the most common disorder for ages four to 11, followed by anxiety disorders.

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.

Here in New Zealand, mental health is a real worry, too. The 2019/2020 New Zealand Health Survey found that six per cent of children aged two to 14 had emotional and/or behavioural problems (diagnosed depression, anxiety disorder and/or ADHD). Anxiety disorders were the most common diagnosis in this age bracket, accounting for 3.9 per cent of the children.

In adulthood, 20.2 per cent of the surveyed Kiwis had been diagnosed with a mood and/or anxiety disorder, 16.5 per cent had been diagnosed with depression, and the prevalence of mental illness amongst adult New Zealanders has increased between 2011/2012 and 2019/2020.

It’s worrying to see mental illness so prevalent in our society, but the Australian study brings some welcome news, 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 health problems?

The University of South Australia says, ‘It’s well understood that a difficult childhood can increase the likelihood of mental illness’, but this study tells us that positive early life experiences do not always protect a child from poor 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 is vital, and even though some children will experience mental health challenges despite having positive childhood experiences, Health Navigator New Zealand says it’s important that your baby, child and teen has:

  • 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 headspace, 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); and although some kids are naturally resilient, parents, carers, grandparents and other significant adults can all help to build resilience in youngsters.   

Beyond Blue is a leading mental health charity in Australia and they say you can help your child develop the skills, habits and attitudes needed for building resilience by helping them:

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.

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 to a new moving 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 state?

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 signs of concern (click here to read about indicators for ages six to 12) and speak to your GP or other health professional if your child’s emotions and behaviour have changed.

The Ministry of Health says most people will be referred to mental health services through their doctor, and the following phone and online services offer support to young Kiwis and their families:

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


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

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