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Could your child’s behaviour be related to a mental health issue?

Every day, you watch your daughter on the playground and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that something is not right.

She just doesn’t seem to “get” the other children. Often, she stands outside groups of children, looking in forlornly. When she does play with others, she overreacts to even the slightest conflict, running away and bursting into tears. This has been going on for a while. Is it normal eight-year-old behaviour, or is it a sign that something more is going on – something that might warrant some attention from a professional?

School boy sitting - could your child's behaviour be related to a mental health issue?A new website aims to answer that question. The ABCs of Mental Health ( is a free web-based resource from The Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, a children’s mental health centre in Toronto. Divided into two parts – one for parents and one for teachers – it looks at concerning behaviour exhibited by children aged three to 14, and provides advice from experts as to whether the behaviour is the sign of a more serious problem. Teachers and parents can go on the website, pick an age group and search either by ‘worrisome behaviour’ or by chapter. There are behaviours that are considered ‘green light’ (normal), ‘yellow light’ (keep an eye on it) or ‘red light’ (seek advice from a professional.)

“Over the past 20 years, research has shown that about one in five kids has a mental health problem,” says Andrew Reesor-McDowell, director of the Gail Appel Institute, a division of the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre. “So in any given class, there are children who are struggling, and their families are dealing with this reality as well. Parents and teachers need an accessible resource, to find out when they need to look for extra help. Our website should help them with that.”

Divided into 10 chapters – including worry and anxiety, defiance, and social skills problems, among others – the site provides advice written by Canadian psychiatrists and psychologists who are experts in each specific behaviour. Each chapter includes a list of possible behaviours (and whether they require further attention), prevention and early intervention strategies, and tips for finding help for children and adolescents with mental health problems (See sidebar for resources.)

“We’re trying to pay more attention to how children learn, and what can help them thrive in the world and in the community,” says Andrew. “If Johnny is having difficulty, we no longer say, ‘Johnny is a bad boy.’ Kids’ behaviour is a message. What can we do to understand it better? What can we do to help them thrive?”

“Our site is meant to tell parents and teachers if they should be concerned, and whether they should even consider seeking professional help. We’ve come a long way, but there is still a stigma around mental health issues. We want to open the conversation about mental health, and we think this site is a big step in the right direction.”

Help at your fingertips

The ABCs of Mental Health was originally funded by a grant from the Ontario government, designed as a resource for teachers to deal with troubling behaviour. A recent federal grant has allowed the Hincks-Dellcrest centre to expand the site to include online info for parents too, as well as to offer workshops for parents and teachers across the country on how to use the site; a further expansion to include high school-aged kids is also in the works.

“We are always looking for ways to extend information about mental health to people who deal with children,” says Andrew Reesor-McDowell. “We wanted to create a resource where parents and teachers could very quickly find out if a certain behaviour was cause for concern. This just made sense to us.”

The site will not provide resources for parents who find their child’s behaviour is considered “red light” and requires professional attention. (Teachers confronting “red light” behaviour are encouraged to go to the mental health team or professional at their school.) For parents, Andrew recommends, a non-profit website that includes a list of mental health services in your community, a list of screening questions to assess your mental health and well-being, a “library” of mental health information, and a compendium of the latest news and research about mental health, from Canada and the rest of the world.

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