Supporting the mental health of children and families


By Professor Frank Oberklaid*
Monday, 14 September, 2020



Supporting the mental health of children and families

The sudden arrival and spread of COVID-19 has had far-reaching impacts that nobody could have predicted as we entered the new year. Much of the impact is yet to be felt or understood, but something that is emerging as a clear issue is the strain on parents and families.

Parents have faced unique challenges as traditional supports like childcare, school and contact with family and friends became less available and many other services moved online. To add to this, some have found themselves without work due to the pandemic or feeling uncertain about their financial future.

Alongside increased community anxiety regarding the very real health risks posed by the virus, the past few months have created a perfect storm for mental health issues to start to present themselves.

We know the mental health of children and parents can be closely linked.

Children experiencing challenges like anxiety, ADHD or depression can often exhibit behavioural issues that require significant time and energy from their parents and additional support from professionals. These supports have changed of late, and families have been required to spend more time in close quarters, meaning the relationships and emotions that impact overall wellbeing are likely to be under greater stress than usual.

Evidence shows a responsive parenting style provides the best outcomes for child development. The Harvard Family Research Project defines responsive parenting as “the use of warm and accepting behaviours to respond to children’s needs and signals” (2012). Being responsive as a parent requires patience and warm, attentive care — something that might be more challenging for parents facing mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

Based on visitation to parenting websites and helplines, parents have been seeking more assistance over recent months. Government-funded parenting website raisingchildren.net.au has seen a significant change in the types of information parents are looking for since the pandemic commenced, with sleep and tantrums being a major topic of interest.

The earlier parents and children receive the support they need, the less likely the stressors of the past few months will develop into more acute health issues.

Medical practitioners are extremely well placed to identify and support parents and children demonstrating mental health challenges or at risk of developing poor mental health.

As a first step, there are a number of free online resources available for GPs to direct families to. The website raisingchildren.net.au has evidence-based parenting information including a dedicated A-Z collection of resources on mental health and specific information on supporting children through the COVID-19 pandemic. Other sites such as beyondblue.org.au and sane.org provide specialist mental health information.

Being on the lookout for mental health symptoms and risks when they may not be the initial reason a family is making contact with you is also important.

Your support could make a world of difference.

About raisingchildren.net.au

raisingchildren.net.au is a free, reliable and independent online parenting resource that provides up-to-date, evidence-based information about raising children and caring for yourself as a parent of carer. Funded by the Australian Government and reviewed by experts, the website exists as an accessible platform to help families grow and thrive together. Essentially, it is a leading source of trustworthy information to support parents, carers and their families through every age and stage of the parenting journey.

Designed for busy families, the website features a myriad of articles, videos and interactive resources that have been tailored to different ages and stages, taking families through the stages of nurturing a newborn to raising a confident, resilient teen.

Working with over 200 Australian and international experts, raisingchildren.net.au produces its own content based on up-to-date research. With established close relationships with several highly respected content partners, including the Centre for Adolescent Health, Victorian Department of Education and Training, NSW Kids and Families and Stepfamilies Australia, the content is passed through a rigorous quality assessment process. All content is approved by the Scientific Advisory Board, made up of some of Australia’s pre-eminent experts in child health and development.

Funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services Families and Children Program. Raising Children Network operates as a not-for-profit company.

*Professor Frank Oberklaid (AM, OAM, MD, FRACP, DCH — Board Director and Senior Adviser, Raising Children Network) was the Foundation Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne for over 25 years. He is currently Co-Group Leader of Child Health Policy, Equity and Translation at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and a Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne. Professor Oberklaid is an internationally recognised researcher, author, lecturer and consultant, and has written two books and over 200 scientific publications on various aspects of paediatrics. For many years he was Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, and remains on the editorial boards of a number of international journals. Professor Oberklaid is Chair of the Victorian Children’s Council and has chaired or been a member of many national health committees, expert working groups and advisory boards. He is currently co-chair of the national Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy. Professor Oberklaid is especially interested in prevention and early intervention, and the use of research findings to inform public policy and service delivery. His clinical and research training is in child development and behaviour, and his work as a specialist paediatrician is with children who have developmental and behavioural problems.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/nadezhda 1906

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