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Children and Young People's Wellbeing

The following information is drawn from different sources that discuss young people’s mental health. It includes characteristics of emotionally competent children, parents’ role, teenage wellbeing, climate change impact, and practical strategies to engage young children.


Characteristics of socially and emotionally competent children

Children’s social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) is a key component of mental health and wellbeing. It is a complex construct that is sometimes referred to as social and emotional competence, development, learning or literacy. An ecological conceptualisation of SEWB recognises that while children’s individual internal characteristics contribute to their social and emotional wellbeing, relationships and interactions with their family, school and community environments have a significant influence. Socially and emotionally competent children:

  • are confident

  • have good relationships

  • communicate well

  • do better at school

  • take on and persist with challenging tasks

  • develop the necessary relationships to succeed in life.

Strong social and emotional competence may also provide resilience against stressors (AIHW, 2022).

Parents’ role in social and emotional wellbeing

Rioseco et al. (2020) conducted a review into the role parents play in children’s social-emotional wellbeing. The study highlighted the importance of a mothers’ positive parenting behaviour in children’s social and emotional development. Warmth, consistency, and a low frequency of hostile parenting behaviour has significant positive impact, especially on conduct problems. They found that psychological distress (e.g., stress, anxiety, and depression) experienced by mothers had a negative impact. However, the review also found a negative impact could be countered later in life if these same children, impacted at an early age by hostile parenting, received warm and consistent parenting at a later age (but this must be combined with a reduction in hostile parenting practices). Overall, the review and analysis found that children’s social-emotional wellbeing is promoted when parents receive support to achieve and maintain good mental health, and to implement warm and consistent parenting practices, especially during difficult circumstances. It highlights the need for ‘child aware practice’, a topic covered elsewhere on this website. Put simply, child-aware practice involves asking parents who present with problems how their children are managing and intervening if parental issues are impacting on the children.


What influences supportive peer relationships in the middle years (8 – 14 years)

Joshi and Truong (2023) have summarised the findings of a systematic review that investigated the factors affecting supportive peer relationships in the middle years (see also Gray et al., 2017). Individual characteristics as well as environmental factors are important influences on positive peer relationships. Being aware of how these factors are associated with peer relationships can provide insight for potential interventions, both to support positive peer relationships and to support better wellbeing for young people. Factors influencing supporting peer relationships in the middle years (outlined in detail in the article) include:

  • identity, e.g. optimism, adaptability, emotional stability, extraversion; shyness and rejection sensitivity can be a negative influence.

  • social and emotional skills, e.g. emotional regulation, prosocial motivation and sympathy, social competence and dwelling n and talking about problems).

  • affect and wellbeing, e.g. happiness, satisfaction with life.

  • self-disclosure, e.g. sharing thoughts and aspirations.

  • Positive attitudes towards school, e.g. inclusion, a sense of belonging.

  • family, while family influences weaken during early adolescence, positive experiences with caregivers earlier in childhood are important in shaping identity and social and emotional skills in the middle years.

  • community, e.g. developing strong relationships with non-parental adults.

  • the virtual environment, while important factors given young people’s use, lack research evidence to accurately define a relationship.

Implications for practice

  • Asking about peer relationships when working with early adolescents may provide insights into their mental health and possible behavioural challenges.

  • Finding ways to help young people in the middle years increase their self-confidence and sense of identity may support healthy relationships in the middle years.

  • Co-rumination (extensively talking about problems / experiences) may have benefits for improving supportive peer relationships – especially when they involve sharing common feelings and experiences.

  • Finding ways to facilitate positive community connections for young people in the middle years may be a useful strategy.

  • Family relationships formed in early childhood are core to building supportive peer relationships in the middle years.

  • Virtual and online environments and peer interactions in the middle years are important factors given young people’s use of online technologies. However, there is currently limited research evidence about the relationship between peer relationships and online environments.

Teenage wellbeing

This material is based on a Future Learn short course around supporting teenage wellbeing (Future Learn, 2021).

Teenagers are different! It is a distinct developmental period where brain structures and networks change.This affects their thoughts, feelings and actions. It also affects other people’s attitudes and behaviour towards them. Teenage development is a result of reciprocal interactions between the individual and their environment. It is important to recognise the systems and structures that influence development as this gives more opportunities to improve teenage wellbeing. The Bioecological Systems Model is an illustration of these systems and structures.


Family influence on development

  • Providing support in a warm and autonomy supporting way (e.g. guiding them through their mistakes) leads to better emotional management.

  • Model behaviours: Teenagers learn from watching, imitating and then internalising.

  • Discipline: Authoritative parenting encourages emotionally adjusted, higher achieving, less risk-taking teenagers.

    • Authoritative: firm, supportive, positive

    • Authoritarian: rules, order, judgement

    • Permissive: reasoning, negotiation, bribes

School influence on development

Schools play an important in teenage development and wellbeing. School values and expectations can lead to either cohesion or conflict. Pupils can be generally satisfied or dissatisfied with the opportunities the school provides. Peer groups can lead to peer acceptance or to isolation and social exclusion.


Cultural norms

  • Teenagers absorb social norms through observation and imitating with role models having a large influence.

  • The internet, social media, and gaming play an important role in wellbeing. Social media allows teenagers to express their thoughts and feelings; it can be a positive or negative source of support and belonging. But it can also lead to insomnia and sleep-related problems and wider mental health problems.

Teenagers and risk-taking

Teenagers are often associated with the following risk-taking behaviours. They feel invincible, seek sensation, and have lack consequential thinking at this stage of brain development. Risk-taking behaviours include substance use, smoking/vaping online interactions, offending behaviour, sex and sexual behaviours, dangerous driving fighting, anti-school behaviours (challenging attitude, getting into trouble, detention, possibly exclusion, arguments, bullying). There are positives around risk-taking too: motivation to learn life skills, to be independent and to obtain rewards. Parents and others can assist with the management of risk-taking (and thereby of teenage wellbeing) by:

  • Don’t dismiss, diminish or deter if teenagers come to adults about situations that are risky.

  • Set clear, rational boundaries – use authoritative parenting

  • Patience and understanding – risk-taking will happen numerous times.

  • You don’t have all the answers – know where the teenager can get support

  • Provide an opportunity to develop different friendship groups if possible – friends have a huge influence and if they are in an anti-social group, they are more likely to take risks.

Teenagers and friendships

Friendships are important for teenagers. They enable sharing information and self-disclosure, validation and self-worth, companionship, sharing resources, providing guidance and assistance, and loyalty. If teenagers cannot form friendships and feel rejected it can have a detrimental impact on wellbeing: passive and lonely children, social anxiety, victimisation. Social exclusion can lead to conduct problems and aggressive behaviours.


Teenagers also form online friendships. A study in 2018 found that much of the qualities of friendships are the same online as offline. Digital communication can be adapted to share companionship and in some ways it easier to provide validation and support. However, the study found teenagers are cautious in their self-disclosure, and the risks of conflict, and its consequences, appear to be enhanced.


Teenage Wellbeing

Risk-taking and friendships can have positive and negative aspects, and this can impact on wellbeing, i.e., the presence of positive aspects, such as high self-esteem, happiness, and confidence, as well as the absence of negative aspects such as stress, anxiety and loneliness. Wellbeing can be affective in a positive way by:

  • Appropriate praise and rewards

  • Authoritative parenting: firm, supportive and positive

  • Friendship groups

  • Social media

It can be impacted in a negative way by:

  • Risk-taking

  • Social exclusion

  • Authoritative (rules, order, judgement) or permissive (reasoning, negotiation, bribes) parenting

  • Social media

Teenage wellbeing can be enhanced by:

  • Not diminishing, dismissing or deterring risky behaviour; discuss it in a rational way (incorporate experience/reasoning) and set boundaries (i.e. authoritative parenting)

  • Broaden friendship groups

There are factors that influence teenage wellbeing that are out of their control, i.e. the mesosystem, exosystem and macrosystems mentioned above. To improve wellbeing the teenager should have some influence over interactions they experience—interactions should be done ‘with’, not done ‘to’ the teenager leading to a mutually beneficial exchange.


Social influences, challenging behaviours and wellbeing

A stereotype of teenage behaviours suggests teenagers are typically argumentative, disengaged, aggressive and abusive, dismissive, withdrawn and attempt to humiliate or undermine. These challenging behaviours are affected by these factors:

  • Economic: poverty.

  • Crime: an area of high crime can lead to gang behaviours where teenagers perpetrate crime or are victims of crime. Living in an area of crime is going to have an impact on teenagers, their wellbeing, their choices, their sense of self-worth and their sense of autonomy.

  • Politics: political decision making can have impacts in education, climate change, gender recognition.

  • Cultural attitudes: social media can impact on body image, the idea that one only lives once and one’s life has to be exceptional and exciting

These can impact on wellbeing by causing anxiety, fear, low self-esteem, concern for the future (e.g. climate change and changes in the job market) and can lead to withdrawal from society or challenging society.


Constructive ways to work with and support teenagers

Teenagers can become anxious for many reasons, leading to fear, low self-esteem, concern for the future, and helplessness in the face of all this—no control, no choices, no influence, no voice. How can we offer support?

  • Awareness is key. Recognise that fear is often at the root of the behaviour so see if you can address the fear, deal with the threat rather than the behaviour.

  • With risk-taking, see if there are opportunities to take risks in a safe way?

  • Encourage a range of friendship groups—‘pro-social’ groups.

  • Boost teenagers’ self-esteem whenever possible—projects, events, non-academic skills. Collaboration with others may be important and success in this should be pointed out and praised.

  • Try to help them access or understand their emotions, Talk about your experiences, trying to give them some perspective on their experiences.

Adults should:

  • Recognise their limitations—apologise when necessary

  • Avoid self-judgement—adults are not going to get it right all the time and should let teenagers know when they are wrong

  • Set clear boundaries

  • Use networks—get advice, relax, unwind.

A note about teenage employment (Growing Up in Australia, 2021)

Many Australian school students balance school with part-time work commitments. Australia has one of the highest rates of combining work and study among OECD countries. Researchers have identified positive and negative aspects to combining paid employment with school. Having a job can develop skills and a range of positive behaviours including dependability, diligence, confidence and independence. On the other hand, employed students – particularly when they work for longer hours – may face time pressures and other stresses from the need to balance work commitments with study and other aspects of their lives. This is called ‘work–life interference’.


Along with the commonly held positive view of teenage employment, it is important for parents and carers to be aware of the potential for paid work to cause disturbances in learning and health, especially if their children are working long hours, are in complex or demanding jobs, where they have minimal control or flexibility, or are in insecure employment.

Climate change


Children’s emotional responses to climate change

Surveys show that most children know about climate change and are worried about its impact on their future. Even for those who have not yet experienced a climate disaster first-hand, common emotional reactions include:

  • fear and anxiety over what the future will bring

  • distress, grief, and a sense of loss over loved places and animals that are being lost

  • anger and frustration at the adult generation, especially decision-makers, for causing the issue but doing so little to address it

  • helplessness – feeling there is nothing they can do themselves to stop climate change

  • despair and hopelessness – believing that decision-makers will not take the urgent action that is needed.

These feelings have been dubbed ‘eco-anxiety’. It is important to recognise that while they are rational responses and can motivate action, for some children these feelings can be debilitating, leading to reactions like nightmares, numbness, and despair (Sanson, 2020).


How can professionals and parents respond to children’s concerns?

Four broad strategies can be adopted to help children manage their feelings around climate change and cope effectively (Sanson, 2020):

1. Listen and respond to their feelings and concerns by:

  • creating times and places for children to share their feelings safely

  • recognising their feelings as valid (e.g. ‘Yes, I can understand that you feel scared, it’s a big problem.’)

  • avoiding false reassurances but give messages of realistic hope (see below).

2. Find out what they know and build their understanding by:

  • responding to children’s questions honestly (while still taking their age into account)

  • correcting misunderstandings – some children have exaggerated fears, such as ‘the whole world is going to catch on fire’

  • helping them to learn basic climate science, emphasising solutions

  • encouraging schools to provide climate change education. One example is New Zealand’s curriculum for 11- to 15-year-olds, which can be found under ‘Useful Resources’ below.

3. Build ‘realistic hope’, i.e. acknowledge that humanity is facing a huge and urgent problem, but that it is still possible to prevent climate change from worsening. Adults can (Australian Psychological Society, 2018b):

  • explain that people already know how to stop carbon emissions and draw down the excess carbon already in the atmosphere

  • show children how lots of good people are working on the problem – from scientists and engineers to farmers, communities, and activists

  • give them examples of the big problems we have solved before, such as abolishing slavery and apartheid, winning women the right to vote, and saving the Franklin River

  • build their sense of efficacy and control by showing them how many people, working together, solved these big problems.

4. Build their capacity to take action by:

  • treating children not just as victims of climate change, but also as problem-solvers with a right to be involved

  • viewing children not only as consumers, but also as citizens

  • modelling environmentally responsible behaviour and expect children to do the same

  • building children’s active citizenship skills by, for example, helping them to make posters, write letters, visit their MPs, join climate action groups, and take action themselves if they wish to.

Useful resources (Sanson, 2020)

This information sheet provides guidance for parents on responding to climate change, including ideas about how they can support children’s coping and resilience.


This information sheet provides guidance and ideas about how parents can help their children to thrive and adapt in the face of climate change.


The climate change empowerment handbook by the Australian Psychological Society (https://psychology.org.au/for-the-public/psychology-topics/climate-change-psychology/climate-change)

This handbook outlines psychological strategies to help people engage effectively with the challenge of climate change.


Sanson, A.V., Van Horne, J., & Burke, S. E. L. (2019). Responding to the impacts of the climate crisis on children and youth. Child Development Perspectives, 13 (4), 201–207. DOI: 10.1111/cdep.12342. https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdep.12342


Sanson, A.V. & Burke, S. E. L. (2019). Climate change and children: An issue of intergenerational justice. In N. Balvin & D. Christie (Eds), Children and peace: From research to action. New York: Springer Peace Psychology Book Series. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-22176-8_21


Practical strategies


Participation in decision making for children aged 0 - 12

Children’s participation in decision making can have a positive impact for children, practitioners, organisations and the wider community. Benefits can include:

  • enhanced self-esteem and problem-solving skills for children

  • more accurate and effective decision making for organisations

  • improved quality of service for practitioners This resource was co-produced with:

  • for the wider community, greater community cohesion and availability of programs that meet the needs of children (Paterson & Hunter, 2020).

Strategies for practitioners to consider when engaging children include:

  • A strengths-based approach

    • ask the child and family what the child’s strengths are

    • identify, emphasise and discuss the child’s strengths and areas in which they are doing well

    • highlight and celebrate the child’s successes, even if these seem unremarkable to others

    • use language that is positive to encourage engagement

  • Child-friendly scheduling

    • consider the best time of the day for the child to be seen

    • keep interactions shorter and more frequent rather than longer and less frequent

  • Time and patience

    • be patient and be prepared to allocate extra time to allow children to communicate and meaningfully engage

    • don’t underestimate the length of time that children may need to communicate. If children feel hurried or pressured to speak, they may be less likely to engage.

  • Physical environment

    • create a child-friendly physical environment (furnishings, activities)

    • pencils/crayons with drawing paper, colouring pages or activity sheets

    • children’s books

    • toys

    • stickers and stamps

  • Spoken and written communication

    • tailor spoken and written communication to the child’s age or developmental level

  • Developmentally-appropriate explanations

    • provide the child with clear explanations about your role and what will happen in the session

  • Non-verbal communication

    • consider the impact of your non-verbal communication (e.g. facial expressions, tone of voice, body language) o a child’s level of engagement

  • Play, creativity and imagination

  • use methods that involve play, creativity and imagination to engage children and promote participation. (e.g. visual arts, storytelling, role play and pretend play)

  • The uniqueness of each child

    • children are unique, so be flexible and varied in your approach to engaging them

    • tailor engagement strategies to each child, based on their needs and interests, with monitoring and revision as required (Hervatin, 2020).

Other Strategies to engage children

1. The Three House Approach (https://www.signsofsafety.net/what-is-sofs/)

The Three Houses tool helps bring the voice of children, young people, and their parents and families to a topic. It contains a graphic of three houses which are used to help individuals and families externalise and explore what is happening in their lives:

  • The house of worries (Vulnerabilities) includes past and present hurts and issues that can make a person more vulnerable

  • The house of good things (Exploring Strengths or Good Things) helps identify internal and external factors that are working well to support safety and wellbeing.

  • The house of Hopes and Dreams explores what people would like to see happening in their world, especially in relation to their vulnerabilities or worries.

Here is an example template:

The Three Houses approach ensures that children’s voices are more present in child protection assessments and intervention plans.This approach helps contribute a message of working in partnership and collaboration with children, young people, and families.It helps develop positive working relationships with families, while being clear about what safety and adequate care and protection must look like.


This is like the Three Houses and can be used for preschool or early primary school-aged children.

  • Use the Fairy’s/Wizard’s clothes to explore and write down, together with the child, the problems/worries from the child’s perspective.

  • Use The Fairy’s wings and the Wizard’s cape represent the good things or what’s working well in the child’s life.

  • In the star of the Fairy’s wand, and in the spell bubble at the end of the Wizard’s wand, the worker and the child record the child’s wishes, vision of their life, and the way they would want it to be and explores hopes for the future.

The Wishing Wizard and Fairy tool provides a way to involve children and young people in child protection practice and ascertain their thoughts, wishes and feelings. Young children often engage quickly with the picture of the wizard or fairy.

This page can help to plan for tricky moments and consider what trusted adults can do to help in this situation. Having a clear plan in place can often prevent things from escalating.


Warning Signs

List here the signs that a supporting adult might be able to notice that might indicate that you are needing some support. Perhaps you become very quiet or seem angry or you stop answering questions in class. You could also develop a signal or sign to show you need help, e.g. ‘If I put my red pen on the table it means I need some help please.’


What helps

Here, you list the different things that help you in these moments. They might be things you can do for yourself or things that other people can support with. Consider what’s helped in the past and try to list a few things for different situations.


Please don’t

If there’s anything that people sometimes do or say that makes you feel worse, note it here. Sometimes people are trying to help, and they get it wrong; you can help them avoid that.


What next

Write here about the backup plan if the ideas above don’t help. Is there somewhere or someone you can go to if you need further support?


Movement behaviours and sleep

White et al. (2022) conducted a search of international literature published before June 2020 which explored movement behaviours and health outcomes in young people. They found:

  • High physical activity and low sedentary behaviours (e.g. screen time, sitting) were associated with positive health, psychological, and educational outcomes.

  • When sleep was included, the combination of all three movement behaviours produced the most favourable outcomes.

  • Together, high physical activity, low sedentary behaviour and longer sleep duration were associated with the most favourable mental health outcomes, health-related quality of life, and wellbeing.

The authors suggest these finding have the following implications for practice:

  • Practitioners can support child mental health and wellbeing by informing children and families about the importance of sleep and movement.

  • A combination of MBs should be encouraged to support the best possible outcomes for CYP. For example, increasing physical activity may not produce beneficial outcomes if sleep remains is low.

Sources

AIHW: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2022). Australia’s children. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/australias-children/contents/health/social-emotional-wellbeing


Future Learn. (2021). Social and Emotional Development: Supporting Teenage Wellbeing. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/social-and-emotional-development-supporting-teenage-wellbeing


Gray, S., Romaniuk, H., & Daraganova, G. (2017). Adolescents’ relationships with their peers. Longitudinal Study of Australian Children Annual Statistical Report, pp. 47-58. https://aifs.gov.au/research/commissioned-reports/adolescents-relationships-their-peers


Growing Up in Australia. (2021). Adolescents combining school and part-time employment. Growing Up in Australia Snapshot Series – Issue 6. https://growingupinaustralia.gov.au/research-findings/snapshots


Hervatin, M. (2020). Practical strategies for engaging children in a practice setting. Emerging Minds. https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/practical-strategies-for-engaging-children-in-a-practice-setting/


Joshi, A., & Truong, M. (2023, September). What influences supportive peer relationships in the middle years. Child Family Community Australia. https://aifs.gov.au/resources/short-articles/what-influences-supportive-peer-relationships-middle-years


Paterson, N., & Hunter, C. (2020). An overview of child participation. Emerging Minds. https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/an-overview-of-child-participation-key-issues-for-organisations-and-practitioners/


Rioseco, P., Warren, D., & Daraganova, G. (2020). Children’s social-emotional wellbeing: The role of parenting, parents’ mental health and health behaviours. AIFS. Growing Up in Australia. https://aifs.gov.au/research/research-reports/childrens-social-emotional-wellbeing


Sanson, A. (2020). How to support children’s wellbeing in the face of climate change. Emerging Minds. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/how-to-support-childrens-wellbeing-in-the-face-of-climate-change/

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