Understanding children's mental health & emotional wellbeing

Understanding Risk Factors

There are some children and young people, such as those in special circumstances or those with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, who will be at greater risk of developing mental health problems. For these children and their parents or carers, the provision of early intervention may make a significant difference

It is helpful to consider potential risk and resilience factors affecting individual children and their families if there are worries around a particular child or young person.  The following is a guide commonly used within mental health e.g. by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services [SCAMHP, 2007],  that may be helpful when assessing protective factors and when to be worried [or not].


CHILDREN Genetic influencesLow IQ and learning difficulties

Specific developmental delay

Communication difficulties

Difficult temperament

Physical illness, especially if chronic and/or neurological

Academic failure

Low self-esteem

FAMILY Overt parental conflictFamily breakdown

Inconsistent or unclear discipline

Hostile and rejecting relationships

Failure to adapt to child’s changing developmental needs

Abuse – physical, sexual and/or emotional

Parental psychiatric illness

Parental criminality, alcoholism and personality disorders

Death and loss – including loss of friendships

ENVIRONMENT Poverty – both financial and relationalHomelessness



Other significant life events


Individuals are often able to cope, so long as the balance among risks, stressful life events and protective factors is manageable. When risk factors and stressful life events outweigh the protective factors, even the most resilient individual can develop problems.  When thinking about any potential issues around mental health needs, resilience can also be assessed by identifying protective factors [or lack of] around individual children, young people and their families1:-

PROTECTIVE FACTORS FOR THE CHILD Secure early relationshipsBeing female

Higher intelligence

Easy temperament when an infant

Positive attitude, problem-solving approach

Good communication skills

Planner, belief in control


Religious faith

Capacity to reflect

PROTECTIVE FACTORS FROM THE FAMILY At least one good parent-child relationship


Clear, firm and consistent discipline

Support for education

Supportive long-term relationship/absence of severe discord

PROTECTIVE FACTORS IN THE ENVIRONMENT Wider supportive networkGood housing

High standard of living

High morale school with positive policies for behaviour, attitude and anti-bullying

Schools with strong academic and non-academic opportunities

Range of sport/leisure opportunities

1.  A ‘CAF’ [Common Assessment Framework] is often used between agencies to help identify strengths and difficulties with children and families in need. But those children and families whose needs may not trigger the use of a CAF also need to be thought about in terms of risk and resilience factors.