Children’s mental health is influenced by a mix of strengths and vulnerabilities. The best way to support a child or family is by promoting their strengths, while acknowledging and adjusting for their vulnerabilities.
Our resources refer to ‘strengths and vulnerabilities’ but you might be more familiar with the term ‘risk and protective factors’, which is often associated with more formal assessment tools and policies. Whatever the term, the aim is the same: to understand what is working well for a child, parent and family; what challenges they’re facing; and what supports they need to grow and thrive.
Strengths are areas of a child’s life that support their healthy development and improve their wellbeing. Some examples of child mental health strengths include:
- family and school connections
- prosocial behaviours such as helping, sharing, cooperating and volunteering
- developmentally appropriate emotional and behavioural responses; and
- positive relationships with their peers and the adults in their life.
A strengths-based approach to mental health uses theories and strategies that focus on children’s and families’ resilience and capabilities, rather than their deficits and categories. A child or parent’s abilities, resources, personal characteristics, interests and wishes are all seen as motivators and tools for positive change.
By helping families to identify and build on their strengths, you can help them to reach their goals and find or maintain independence in their daily lives (Khan & Francis, 2015).
In the following video (1 minute, 24 seconds), Carolyn Markey (Senior Family and Children’s Therapist, Relationships Australia SA) and Anneka Skirrow (Family Relationship Counsellor and Creative Arts Therapist) share how they help parents to identify their children’s strengths.
Vulnerabilities are areas of a child’s life that may be of concern or could benefit from further attention. Without the right support, these factors may have a negative influence on the child’s physical and mental health, development, learning, relationships and future outcomes.
Examples of child mental health vulnerabilities include:
- individual factors, such as developmentally inappropriate emotional and behavioural responses, communication difficulties, disabilities, developmental disorders or delays
- biological factors, such as prematurity (for infants), chronic or congenital health problems
- family factors, such as stress or adversity, family and domestic violence, parental substance use or mental health difficulties, or a chronically ill family member; and
- social and environmental factors, such as the quality and availability of health, social and support services; safety of neighbourhoods; experiences of discrimination and isolation; and lack of connections to culture (Hunter, 2012).
These factors are complex – children will often experience multiple vulnerabilities at the same time (Guy, Furber, Leach, & Segal, 2016; Zeanah Jr. & Zeanah, 2009). An intersectional lens will help you to understand the role societal and sociocultural structures play in child mental health vulnerabilities, to better understand the complexity and diversity of a child’s experiences (Wendt, Rowley, Seymour, Bastian, & Moss, 2023).
An understanding of each family member’s strengths, vulnerabilities and childhood experiences is critical to respectful and effective practice (Scott, Arney, & Vimpani, 2013), especially when the family is experiencing multiple co-existing issues.
The interconnected nature of the parent-child relationship means parents and children share the same vulnerabilities. Therefore, it’s vital adult-focused services keep the child in mind when engaging with parents about the problems they’re facing.
But the stigma that comes with most adversities can get in the way of child-focused conversations, as parents worry about being judged or of having their children taken away from them. Mothers/primary caregivers in particular bear the burden of judgement in most layers of society, and may be reluctant to speak honestly about how the challenges they’re facing are also affecting their children (Moss, Crooke, Rollbusch, & Lee, 2019).
Asking adults about their parenting strengths and hopes for their child can be a way to overcome stigma and shame, without losing sight of the child’s experience (Moss, Crooke, Rollbusch, & Lee, 2019), and empower parents to break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage. These conversations can also help you to build trust and rapport and strengthen the therapeutic relationship. Adopting a trauma-informed approach will help you to remain sensitive, non-judgemental and hopeful in this work.
One way to identify a child’s strengths and vulnerabilities is to be curious about the important domains in their life. These include the child’s:
- home life
- community connections; and
By exploring these domains, you can build a more complete picture of the child’s ecology and how their strengths and vulnerabilities are influencing the problem.
Talking with children about what they enjoy and what they’re good at can give you an idea of how they perceive the problems they’re facing. Conversations exploring children’s strengths and interests can also provide a foundation from which to build further skills to respond to these problems.
But the child you’re working with may not know how to describe what they’re good at – or may not believe they’re good at anything at all. Games and tools like strengths cards can be a great way to draw out a child’s abilities and start those conversations. For example, in a game of Hangman you might ask the child to choose a feeling that they’ve had or something that they’re good at, then guess the answer. Asking the child what they think their friends like about them the most can be another helpful prompt.
In the following video (1 minute, 6 seconds), social worker Chris Dolman and occupational therapist Ali Chisolm share their approaches to seeking out a child’s skills and know-how.
Another way of learning about a child’s strengths and vulnerabilities is by speaking with the supportive people in their life: parents and caregivers, teachers, other practitioners and friends. You might ask them to describe times when the child or young person has persevered, taken action, or demonstrated how much they know or care about something. These conversations can help you to better understand the ‘whole child’, including their hopes and values.
Sometimes children’s lives have been so overtaken by the problem they’re facing that they lose sight of their strengths and skills. In these situations, hearing someone they trust talking about all the things they’re good at can be especially significant for them.
It can be easy for parents to focus on the problem – after all, it’s why they’ve come to see you in the first place. But it’s important to bring some positivity into the room to help the child and parents see that the problem is the problem, not them. Parents may not have the opportunity to bring up their child’s skills and strengths in this setting unless you specifically ask. They may also need help to rejig what they say and how they talk about their child when they’re around.
In the following video (2 minutes, 37 seconds), Carolyn Markey (Senior Family and Children’s Therapist, Relationships Australia, South Australia) and Aerinn Morgan (Senior Practitioner, Adult & Family Counselling, Uniting Communities) share how they encourage and use parents’ descriptions of children’s skills in their practice.
Both strengths and vulnerabilities play a key role in infant and child mental health outcomes. Effective practice requires an understanding of the whole family’s context: their individual skills and know-how and the challenges they’re facing. Adult adversities impact children too, so it’s vital adult-focused services keep children in mind during their work with parents.
Strengths-based practice recognises children’s right to be heard and have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Getting children to see themselves through a different lens can really shift things for them and increase their chances of overcoming the problems they face.
Emerging Minds has a range of resources to help you in identifying and supporting a child’s strengths and reducing their vulnerabilities:
Guy, S., Furber, G., Leach, M., & Segal, L. (2016). How many children in Australia are at risk of adult mental illness? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 50(12), 1146–1160.
Hunter, C. (2012). Is resilience still a useful concept when working with children and young people? (CFCA Paper No. 2). Melbourne, Vic: Child Family Community Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Khan, A., & Francis, A. (2015). Strengths based practice with children with a mental health condition. International Journal of Social Work and Human Services Practice, 3(1), 9–19.
Moss, D., Crooke, R., Rollbusch, N., & Lee, J. (2019). Working with mothers affected by substance use: Keeping children in mind. Adelaide, South Australia: Emerging Minds.
Scott, D., Arney, F., & Vimpani, G. (2013). Think child, think family, think community. In F. Arney & D. Scott (Eds), Working with vulnerable families: A partnership approach. Melbourne, Vic: Cambridge University Press.
Wendt, S., Rowley, G., Seymour, K., Bastian, C., & Moss, D. (2023). Child-focused practice competencies: Structural approaches to complex problems. Adelaide, South Australia: Emerging Minds.
Zeanah Jr., C. H., & Zeanah, P. D. (2009). The scope of infant mental health. In C. H. Zeanah Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of Infant Mental Health, pp. 5–21. New York: The Guildford Press