Mental Health: Children

Positive mental health is essential to a child's healthy development from birth. We support programs that offer services to young children, youth, and young adults with mental health challenges to help them meet their goals at home, at school, and in the community.

Signs and symptoms of a mental illness

Like a physical health condition, recognizing and seeking treatment for a mental health condition at the onset of the signs and symptoms leads to more positive outcomes. has a list of feelings and behaviors that may be an early indication of a mental health condition. These feelings and behaviors include:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Avoiding people and usual activities
  • Having low or no energy
  • Feeling numb or like nothing matters
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
  • Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
  • Thinking of harming one's self or others

Discuss concerns with the youth's or young adult's primary care doctor, another health professional, or other trusted resource in the community.

Call 211 to learn about local mental health treatment options or text HOPELINE to 741741 for support. Call 911 in life-threatening situations.

Love, talk, play, read: Promote positive mental health for all children

Studies show that promoting the social-emotional well-being of children and youth leads to a more successful adulthood. Consider these tips to promote positive social-emotional well-being for children of all ages.

Infants and toddlers

  • Love: Be affectionate and nurturing; hold and touch a baby frequently; make eye contact; smile and coo at a baby
  • Talk: Talk and sing to a baby
  • Play: Play peek-a-boo; imitate the baby’s sound and movement
  • Read: Make reading aloud a routine activity with a baby

Know this: When you respond quickly to a baby’s needs, you’re loving them, not spoiling them!


  • Love: Give praise, hugs, and spend special time together
  • Talk: Listen actively. Make eye contact. Pay attention to what the child is saying
  • Play: Play is the work of childhood and is critical to learning and healthy development
  • Read: Use stories to help engage the child in labeling and identifying various emotions

Know this: All behavior has meaning!

Elementary school age

  • Love: Encourage and respect a child’s growing independence. Give hugs. Acknowledge their successes (Remember to praise them for trying, not just succeeding.)
  • Talk: Talk with them about their feelings, choices, and relationships
  • Play: Create safe spaces for them to develop social skills with peers
  • Read: Along with independent reading, create time for them to read to you

Know this: Spending quality time with a child this age builds resilience!

Middle school age

  • Love: Create times for hugs. Express love for them. Show positive regard for their peers.
  • Talk: Develop new routines based on their changing lifestyle that allow for private conversations. Rather than open-ended questions that may overwhelm, try suggesting topics to talk about and give them the choice.
  • Play: The increasingly self-conscious child will relish private times that are full of laughter. It is good to provide a safe place for children to act young at times when they feel the pressure to grow up.
  • Read: Books about people their age will help pre-teens to accept themselves and the changes they are experiencing. Suggest books that highlight teens doing activities that make a positive impact in their world.

Know this: It is important to be actively involved in a pre-teen's life. Attend school functions, including parent teacher conferences. Get to know their friends and their parents.


  • Love: Teens “try on” different aspects of personality as they are discovering what works for them. Express unconditional love. Offer support and parameters for exploration.
  • Talk: Encourage teens to talk about their ideas and experiences. Listen without judgment. Choose calm and receptive moments to share your opinions. Help to build the connections in their frontal lobes by discussing what they know and what they are learning about the link between their actions and the consequences.
  • Play: As time spent with their peers increases, maintain regular family time with teens and let them help make choices for how that time is spent. Consider play that involves healthy risks.
  • Read: Continue to model reading. Share your favorite books from the early adult years. Ask to read one of theirs.

Know this: It is important to be actively involved in a teen's life. Get to know their friends and what they do together. Be aware of how they are performing in school.



Logo for Resilient Wisconsin: Connected. Stronger. Thriving.

Resilient Wisconsin has information and tools you can use to promote positive mental health for all children.

New reports document struggles of students. Reports from the Voices of Wisconsin Students Project offer insight on the experiences of middle and high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic. View the reports.


Last Revised: April 28, 2021