Supporting child mental health through understanding prosocial behaviour

Melissa Willoughby, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Australia, April 2024

Resource Summary

This short article briefly describes what prosocial behaviours are and provides examples of prosocial behaviours in children. It explores how prosocial behaviours can impact child mental health. This article also provides considerations for practitioners who work with children and their families that will help them to encourage prosocial behaviours in children.


Children and their families have characteristics and abilities that can help them to overcome mental health challenges and maintain good mental health (Devaney, Brady, Crosse, & Jackson, 2023). These are sometimes referred to as mental health strengths or protective factors and can include good parenting skills, self-regulation and prosocial behaviours (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023; Buchanan-Pascall, Gray, Gordon, & Melvin, 2018; Robson, Allen, & Howard, 2020). A strengths-based approach focuses on these protective characteristics and abilities rather than only on deficits. Using this approach can improve child mental health and wellbeing by increasing the child’s and family’s awareness and understanding of their existing capabilities, and encouraging hope (Devaney et al., 2023).

Prosocial behaviours are an example of a strength that can benefit both communities and individuals (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023; Hirani, Ojukwu, & Bandara, 2022). These are positive behaviours that involve helping or caring for others (Williams & Berthelsen, 2017). In addition to having benefits for our mental health (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023), communities can also benefit from prosocial behaviours through volunteering, helping those within and outside of our immediate social and familial circles, and caring for the environment (Williams & Berthelsen, 2017).


What are prosocial behaviours?

Prosocial behaviours are activities that are done for the benefit of someone else or of the wider society out of a belief that other people’s welfare, emotions and experiences are important (Williams & Berthelsen, 2017).

There are a wide range of behaviours that children can engage in that are prosocial (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023; Raising Children Network, 2023). Some examples include:

  • being considerate of other people’s feelings
  • sharing with others (e.g. books, toys)
  • being helpful if someone is feeling hurt, upset or unwell
  • being kind to younger children
  • offering to help others (e.g. parents, teachers, other children)
  • volunteering time in community organisations
  • cooperating with others in a game or task; and
  • caring for animals or the environment.

Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) is an ongoing study that follows the development of 10,000 young people and their families in Australia. Evidence from LSAC shows that prosocial behaviours are common among Australian children (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023). At least 80% of parents involved in the Study reported that their child (aged 4–17 years) displayed prosocial behaviours at any time (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023). Prosocial behaviours are more common among girls than boys, and among children (aged 4–12 years) than adolescents (aged 13–17 years) (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023).


How do prosocial behaviours impact child mental health?

When children engage in prosocial behaviour, they’re more likely to experience positive mental health. Research has found that engaging in prosocial behaviour is associated with:

  • increases in positive emotions (Oberle, Ji, & Molyneux, 2023)
  • increases in life satisfaction (Oberle et al., 2023)
  • increases in levels of optimism (Oberle et al., 2023)
  • decreases in emotional challenges (e.g. being worried, unhappy, depressed, tearful or nervous) (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023; Memmott-Elison & Toseeb, 2022)
  • decreases in depressive symptoms (Hirani et al., 2022; Oberle et al., 2023); and
  • decreases in externalising behaviours such as peer problems, conduct problems, hyperactivity and inattention problems (Huber, Plötner, & Schmitz, 2019; Memmott-Elison & Toseeb, 2022).

Engaging in more prosocial behaviours is associated with fewer child mental health challenges, however, the influence on mental health may change with age. LSAC found that engaging in prosocial behaviours was associated with fewer emotional challenges (e.g. being worried, unhappy or depressed) among children aged 4–13 years (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023). However, they found no association between prosocial behaviours and emotional challenges among adolescents aged 14–17 years (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023). Although prosocial behaviours are associated with improvements in mental health, we don’t know if there is a causal relationship between prosocial behaviours and mental health.

Despite most evidence indicating the benefits of prosocial behaviours for child mental health, there are some conflicting findings related to internalising behaviours (e.g. anxiety, being socially withdrawn) among young children (aged 3–6 years) (Huber et al., 2019). Some studies have found that prosocial behaviours decrease internalising behaviours, while others have found an increase (Huber et al., 2019). More research is needed to understand what situations may lead to an increase or decrease in internalising behaviours for young children, or whether existing internalising behaviours may influence the impact of prosocial behaviours on mental health.


How can practitioners help children to engage in prosocial behaviours?

Given the evidence on the association between prosocial behaviour and improvements in child mental health, practitioners can support the development of child prosocial behaviour by encouraging associated behaviours and factors, which in turn may promote child mental health. There are multiple child, parent, family and community factors that can influence the development of prosocial behaviour:

Child factors related to prosocial behaviours

  • Practitioners can work with children and their families to grow children’s self-confidence and the belief that they can enact social change (Silke, Brady, Boylan, & Dolan, 2018). See the Further resources section of this article for tips on how to encourage these factors in children.
  • Practitioners can speak with parents about developing empathy in their children (Silke et al., 2018). For example: talking about the emotions of people or characters from stories or TV shows; and discussing how the child’s actions can impact other people and their emotions (Raising Children Network, 2023).

Parent factors related to prosocial behaviours

  • Practitioners can encourage or support parents to engage in behaviours that are associated with promoting prosocial behaviours in children. These can include:
    • having a warm and affectionate approach to parenting (Williams & Berthelsen, 2017)
    • prioritising and valuing prosocial behaviours (Hirani et al., 2022)
    • role-modelling prosocial behaviours (Raising Children Network, 2023); and
    • praising and encouraging children when they display prosocial behaviours (Raising Children Network, 2023).
  • If needed, practitioners can refer parents to parenting programs that can assist them in learning how to support the development of prosocial behaviours in their children (e.g. Incredible Years parent training [Menting, de Castro, & Matthys, 2013] and Triple P – Positive Parenting Program [Li, Peng, & Li, 2021]).

Family factors related to prosocial behaviours

  • Practitioners can encourage parents to empower children to build relationships and spend time with trusted caregivers beyond the parents, such as a grandparent (Hirani et al., 2022). Having caregivers who are involved in the child’s life, and with whom the child has a warm and positive relationship, can help children to feel valued (Hirani et al., 2022).
  • Practitioners can work with families to explore their relationships and family dynamics. Having a family that is emotionally bonded, who cooperate with each other, are warm and affectionate, and respect each other’s autonomy (also known as ‘family cohesion’) promotes prosocial behaviour (Hirani et al., 2022). Having good quality relationships with siblings may also help the development of prosocial behaviours through navigating play, conflict and caring for younger siblings (Hughes, McHarg, & White, 2018). See the Further resources section of this article for tips on how families can build positive relationships.

Community factors related to prosocial behaviours

  • Practitioners can speak with children and their families about the benefits of involving children in community and extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs (Hirani et al., 2022; Silke et al., 2018).
  • Practitioners can talk to children and their families about the benefits of children volunteering their time (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023). This could involve volunteering for community organisations (e.g. environmental, animal or youth organisations) or it might involve helping a grandparent or a neighbour.
  • Practitioners can ask children and their families about how the child feels at school. Children feeling connected to their school community may help to promote prosocial behaviours (Hirani et al., 2022). Early childhood educators can also potentially increase children’s prosocial behaviours by facilitating peer interactions (e.g. by prompting children to talk to and interact with each other) (Girard, Girolametto, Weitzman, & Greenberg, 2011).


How was this resource developed?

This short article summarises the findings of a research snapshot from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), which examined the association between prosocial behaviours and child mental health (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023). The findings from this snapshot were supplemented with peer reviewed academic and grey literature that examined the impact of prosocial behaviours and child mental health, and how children can develop prosocial behaviours.


The authors would like to thank Dr Karlee O’Donnell for their review and feedback on the development of this resource.

Further resources

The following range of resources will support practitioners develop their understanding of child prosocial behaviours:


Australian Institute of Family Studies. (2023). Prosocial behaviours and the positive impact on mental health. Melbourne: AIFS.

Buchanan-Pascall, S., Gray, K. M., Gordon, M., & Melvin, G. A. (2018). Systematic review and meta-analysis of parent group interventions for primary school children aged 4–12 years with externalizing and/or internalizing problems. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 49, 244–267.

Devaney, C., Brady, B., Crosse, R., & Jackson, R. (2023). Realizing the potential of a strengths‐based approach in family support with young people and their parents. Child & Family Social Work, 28(2), 481–490.

Girard, L.-C., Girolametto, L., Weitzman, E., & Greenberg, J. (2011). Training early childhood educators to promote peer interactions: Effects on children’s aggressive and prosocial behaviors. Early Education and Development, 22(2), 305–323.

Hirani, S., Ojukwu, E., & Bandara, N. A. (2022). Understanding the role of prosocial behavior in youth mental health: Findings from a scoping review. Adolescents, 2(3), 358–380.

Huber, L., Plötner, M., & Schmitz, J. (2019). Social competence and psychopathology in early childhood: A systematic review. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 28, 443–459.

Hughes, C., McHarg, G., & White, N. (2018). Sibling influences on prosocial behavior. Current Opinion in Psychology, 20, 96–101.

Li, N., Peng, J., & Li, Y. (2021). Effects and moderators of Triple P on the social, emotional, and behavioral problems of children: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 709851.

Memmott-Elison, M. K., & Toseeb, U. (2022). Prosocial behavior and psychopathology: An 11-year longitudinal study of inter-and intraindividual reciprocal relations across childhood and adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 1–15.

Menting, A. T., de Castro, B. O., & Matthys, W. (2013). Effectiveness of the Incredible Years parent training to modify disruptive and prosocial child behavior: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(8), 901–913.

Oberle, E., Ji, X. R., & Molyneux, T. M. (2023). Pathways from prosocial behaviour to emotional health and academic achievement in early adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 43(5), 632–653.

Raising Children Network. (2023). Prosocial behaviour: Children and teenagers being helpful and valuing others [Web page].

Robson, D. A., Allen, M. S., & Howard, S. J. (2020). Self-regulation in childhood as a predictor of future outcomes: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 146(4), 324.

Silke, C., Brady, B., Boylan, C., & Dolan, P. (2018). Factors influencing the development of empathy and pro-social behaviour among adolescents: A systematic review. Children and Youth Services Review, 94, 421–436.

Williams, K. E., & Berthelsen, D. (2017). The development of prosocial behaviour in early childhood: Contributions of early parenting and self-regulation. International Journal of Early Childhood, 49, 73–94.

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