When you are working with children and youth

Consider the advice and guidance below.

We also recommend you read this brochure if you work in a primary school setting: ‘Supporting childen of parents with a mental illness – A resource for primary-school workers’.


Child development refers to children’s growth and development across physical, mental, emotional and social domains. Children develop through the relationships they have with their caregivers, particularly in the early years. If parenting is affected by mental illness or other stresses there can be developmental effects. Conversely, if a child has developmental or behavioural delays or a disability, a parent’s mental health can also be impacted.

You can assess child development through a combination of asking questions of the child, their caregivers and through observation. If developmental concerns are identified, support families to access an appropriate service for assessment.

See the information below on child developmental stages.

How can I tell if a student has a parent with a mental illness?

The diagram below details signs that could indicate a student has a parent who has a mental illness. Keep in mind that:

  • some children of parents with a mental illness may not show any of these signs – in fact, some may excel at school
  • other children may have these indicators, but they could be due to reasons other than the mental illness of a parent
  • these signs can also be indicators that a child has caring responsibilities for someone in their family. A child’s caring role could be due to mental illness, however could also be due to disability, chronic illness, drug and alcohol misuse or ageing.

Support networks

  • An important protective factor for children is having access to other supportive adults who they can go to when they have concerns or when their parent is unwell and they are in need of extra support.
  • Ensure that children have the telephone numbers of about four trusted adults (including their parents) to call in an emergency, and that they know about the Kid’s Helpline (1800 55 1800). It’s free (even from mobiles), run 24-hours-a-day and is confidential.
  • Suggest that the child and family make a care plan for times when their parent may be unwell or hospitalised. You can help the child develop this plan, or suggest that caregivers may develop it with the child.
  • Ask children whether they are required to do more around the house than others their age due to their parent being unwell. Do they take responsibility for their parent’s medication regime, for example? If so, consider referring children who are providing care for their parents to a young carer service for social support, information, advocacy and respite (e.g. the Commonwealth Carer Resource Centre, ph. 1800 242 636).

School and community activities

Protective factors for children in this area include the child participating in a range of activities outside of the home, pursuing their own interests and having close friends.

  • Find out if the child has opportunities to play and mix with others. Are there any barriers to attendance at playgroup, pre-school, school, after school activities, etc? How can you help to address any barriers?
  • Ask the child how they are going at school. Things to look out for include attendance, friendships, difficulties with schoolwork and behavioural concerns. Ask the child if there is anyone at their school they feel comfortable talking to if they have concerns, such as a favourite teacher, school counsellor or principal. You may be able to support the young person to negotiate school support.
  • Ask about friendships and hobbies. What types of activities are children involved with outside of school that are important to them? Consider how these activities can be supported if parents are unwell.
  • If children don’t have any community activities or opportunities outside of school or home because of their responsibilities at home, consider referring them to a young carer support service (e.g. the Commonwealth Carer Resource Centre, ph. 1800 242 636).
    • Some states run camps and other programs for children and young people who have parents with a mental illness. Check the help services and helplines section of our website for local details.

Information needs

Protective factors for children in this area include the child understanding their parent’s mental illness, the child being able to communicate with their parents about the mental illness, the child knowing they are not to blame or responsible for their parent’s mental illness and the child having a sense of hope about the future.

Find out what information may be needed by the child and help them to identify reliable sources.


  • When assessing safety, you may find this Child Development and Trauma Guide useful.
  • If you are concerned about the safety or wellbeing of a young person contact your local child protection service. Child protection services aim to keep the family together and are able to offer lots of programs and services to families to ease pressure and support parenting roles.
  • If a family is referred to child protection services, remember to seek supervision and support from your team to consider how the family may continue to be supported by your service. It is important that your involvement and support continues.

See also

Download Free COPMI Resources

For use by families where a parent has a mental illness, their supporters, and services who work with them.