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Reframing Children’s Mental Health

A communications toolkit

Children’s mental health is the result of a complex set of influences, including environments and social conditions and the culture and public policies that shape them. Too often, however, conversations about children’s mental health focus narrowly on the visible symptoms of these larger forces, such as trouble with emotional regulation or stressed parents, rather than on the systemic factors, like poverty or social marginalization, that lead to these more immediately visible challenges. When that happens, the preventive, systems-based solutions recommended by experts drop out of sight.

Experts in child mental health and development need communications strategies for building deeper alignment between their perspectives and those of practitioners focused on biomedical, biopsychosocial, and social approaches to children’s wellbeing. Shifting to new communications strategies can expand support among practitioners for the large-scale policy changes that can improve children’s outcomes.

This toolkit, created by the FrameWorks Institute in partnership with Emerging Minds, is designed to help child mental health experts achieve this goal. The framing recommendations shared here have been developed from FrameWorks’ research on how practitioners understand children’s mental health and how their understanding helps or hinders their support for policies to promote better mental health outcomes for Australia’s children.

Come inside and take a look around!

We invite you to share this toolkit with your colleagues. Use it as a resource to spread the word about the importance of promoting positive children’s mental health through systems change.

Getting Started

This toolkit is divided into five sections.

Quick-Start Guide is a summary of framing DOs and DON’Ts for talking about children’s mental health. Use this at-a-glance guide as your first resource to crafting effective messaging.

Anticipating Message Reception demonstrates how to avoid common communications traps by predicting people’s response to a message.

Stay on Frame explains the five recommendations stemming from the research and provides interactive examples of each framing strategy in use.

Spread the Word provides a printable resource you can share with your team and other advocates to help them start reframing children’s mental health, too.

Additional Resources provides links to additional framing recommendations on how to communicate effectively about parenting and about quality child care.

Quick-Start Guide

In a hurry? Use this downloadable summary of the framing recommendations to start reframing your communications right away.

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Quick-Start Guide

Framing involves making choices about how to deliver a message: what to emphasise, how to explain critical concepts, and even what to leave unsaid.

Anticipating Message Reception

Effective framers know what to say and what to avoid saying to steer people’s interpretation of a message in the right direction. These downloadable guides can help you make more effective framing choices.


Overcoming Assumptions

A chart to help communicators anticipate when a message to practitioners may backfire.


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Tapping into Productive Cultural Models

Use this brief guide as a resource for choosing words, phrases and ideas that tap into the public’s knowledge and helpful assumptions about children’s wellbeing.

Stay on Frame

These “before and after” examples show you how to apply each framing recommendation in a variety of communications situations.

Recommendation 1: Define children’s mental health, don’t just name it.

Practitioners and the public both tend to think of mental health as the absence of mental illness. Consequently, they focus on mental health solutions that are intervention- or treatment-related. Policies, programs, and resources that can promote positive mental health are less visible and less salient. Take time to define children’s mental health as a positive state of wellbeing that can be supported by promotive factors. In that way, you can broaden people’s understanding of mental health as more than the absence of mental health challenges. The examples below illustrate how to do that.

All children deserve to have positive mental health. Poor mental health affects individual wellbeing, social development, future prospects, and lifelong outcomes.

Positive mental health gives children a sense of security and contentment, facilitates positive social interactions, and enables the steady development of critical competencies and life skills.

An increasing number of children experience depression and anxiety on a regular basis, and it’s holding them back from living full and happy lives. If we want our children to succeed, we need to invest in better programs and supports for child mental health across Australia.

Experiencing a range of emotions throughout childhood is healthy. Feeling helpless and out of control is not. By actively strengthening child mental health in Australia, we can equip our children to process, regulate, and manage their emotions productively.

Child mental health is closely linked to all types of health and development, including physical, emotional, psychological, behavioral, and social. We can’t do right by our children in any one of these areas unless we’re thinking carefully about all of them.

Mental health is a vital and integrated component of children’s early development and lifelong wellbeing. It is linked to everything from nutritional intake in infancy to academic achievement in school. We can promote mental health by providing the conditions and supports all children need for optimal mental health development.

Caregivers play an essential role in fostering child mental health. They are the invisible champions and unsung heroes whose love, nurturing, and tireless efforts help ensure that children get to live happy, healthy lives and grow up to be all they can be. In some families, however, financial troubles, job loss, substance use disorders, or other social stressors make it difficult for adults to be effective caregivers. In these cases, children may not get the support they need to thrive, which can result in mental illness and a range of harmful consequences.

Caregivers play an essential role in fostering child mental health by providing strong, stable relationships; being responsive to children’s unique temperaments and needs; and modeling healthy behaviors themselves. The rest of us have an equally valuable role to play in removing structural barriers to responsive caregiving. By addressing social issues like poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, and racial discrimination, we can enhance caregivers’ capacity and promote a cycle of positive mental health.

Recommendation 2: Emphasize the collective benefits of promoting children’s mental health.

Focusing narrowly on the benefits that accrue to children when we take mental health seriously can limit a message’s effectiveness, especially in conversations about policies to promote positive mental health (not just mitigate problems). Instead, engage audiences by emphasizing how we all benefit when we intentionally build the conditions for positive mental health.

We’re coming together to learn about what parents and other caregivers need to be able to raise happier, better-functioning children. Join us in Sydney 6-9 Aug for #HealthyMindsHealthyFutures2020

We’re learning how better supports for parents and caregivers = happier, better-functioning children = a brighter future for all. Explicitly links children’s outcomes to society’s. Join us in Sydney 6-9 Aug for #HealthyMindsHealthyFutures2020


City officials have been working hard to promote positive child mental health, and we’re already seeing improved outcomes for infants and children. #cycleofhealth #borntobewell Find out more at

Thriving communities promote positive child mental health. Positive child mental health promotes thriving communities. Emphasizes the mutually reinforcing relationship between child outcomes and community wellbeing. #cycleofhealth #borntobewell Find out more at


Pediatrician @SheilaMD tells Australians we have a responsibility to make sure all kids can be mentally healthy, grow up strong, and succeed in life. #brainstrong #littlemindsbigmatter

Pediatrician @SheilaMD says, “All kids want to be mentally healthy, grow up strong, and become contributing Australian citizens.” Let’s make sure they all can. Creates a vision for a future everyone will benefit from. #brainstrong #littlemindsbigmatter


Recommendation 3: Use explanatory examples to connect children’s mental health to its systemic causes and consequences.

Practitioners readily see how factors like poverty make it harder for children to have good mental health but the systemic roots of these challenges are less top of mind, and therefore effective solutions to these challenges are less visible as well. Draw clearer links between broader social problems and children’s mental health to help practitioners to see the importance of structural solutions when it comes to improving children’s mental health. The examples below model how this strategy can be used in social media posts or talking points:

Poverty Names poverty but does not connect it to a structural cause can be a barrier to #ChildMentalHealth. Stress negatively influences mental health and can lead to physical health issues like disordered eating and sleeping:

Strong relationships w/ adults are crucial for #ChildMentalHealth, but major stressors like a lack of affordable housing Points to a concrete systemic cause of mental health outcomes can make it difficult for parents to fully engage with kids: Improving Australians’ access to housing = supporting child mental health.


Children experiencing adverse conditions may be at greater risk for mental health problems. Racial bias, inequality, and other forms of discrimination can have profound impacts on a child’s mental health Names broader social factors but talks about them at the level of the individual, not as systemic problems in need of systemic solutions. , so it’s important to be mindful about the many factors at work Awareness is a small step towards solutions but misses an opportunity to link mental health to structural change. when thinking about how to address mental health challenges.

Children’s mental health is shaped by the environments they live in. This reframed version emphasizes the structural nature of social conditions by placing children in a larger social context. Racial bias, social marginalization, and other types of discrimination can harm their mental health. It’s our responsibility to change those conditions in our communities Expands the scope of the action needed beyond treating individual children. and to mitigate their impacts. We can start, for example, by adopting culturally responsive practices and delivering trauma-informed care. Provides concrete examples of the kinds of systemic solutions that can respond to the social conditions that affect children’s mental health.

Recommendation 4: Build strong explanatory chains to explain how healthy children’s mental health happens.

When thinking about mental health, practitioners tend to focus on poor mental health rather than on positive aspects of mental health development. This limits the importance they place on actively promoting children’s positive mental health. To deepen understanding of child mental health as an asset rather than an absence of illness, take time to explain how positive mental health happens and what it looks like.

Explanatory chains are brief, “A leads to B leads to C” explanations that link a cause to a consequence by making the process that connects them more visible. They show what leads to what, with what effects. Below is an example of how a communication might use explanatory chains to build understanding of positive child mental health as a developmental process that can be supported by promotive policies and programs.

Supporting mental health in infancy and early childhood Language choices in orange reinforce thinking about mental health in negative rather than positive terms


Early mental health matters. When very young children experience poor mental health it often leads to unhealthy eating behaviors and sleep patterns, which can have long-term consequences for their physical health. We know exposure to abuse and neglect is a leading cause of mental health challenges in early childhood, Describes an impact rather than explaining a causal sequence which is why preventing childhood maltreatment is central to our vision for children’s mental health in Australia.



Supporting mental health in infancy and early childhood This reframed version emphasizes how to build positive mental health assets that can lead to cascading positive outcomes.


Early mental health matters. When very young children have stable relationships with adults, they begin to feel a sense of trust towards the world around them. And when adults are responsive to children’s needs, children become increasingly able to recognize how they are feeling. This helps them Highlighted orange phrases like “This helps them,” “which in turn,” and “which is why” are linking phrases that connect ideas and make it easier for audiences to follow the explanatory chain. start to learn how to regulate their emotions, a key component in positive mental health which in turn builds a strong foundation for later health and academic achievement. We know how important attachment relationships are in promoting mental health, which is why supporting caregivers in forming these strong relationships is central to our vision.

Recommendation 5: Focus on solutions. 

Practitioners predominately identify parental education and awareness as the primary solutions to improving children’s mental health outcomes. Large-scale solutions that address children’s mental health at a systemic level are less immediately visible to them.

Expand the range of solutions that practitioners see and support by regularly featuring examples of solutions in your messages. Framing works through repetition, so the more you name systems-level solutions, the more likely your audiences will hear them, remember them, and come to support them. The examples below illustrates how to emphasize large-scale solutions.

Children’s positive mental health starts with parents’ positive mental health. The lack of solutions leaves no context that can expand thinking beyond parents.

Providing families with access to affordable housing, high-quality childcare, employment opportunities, and adequate adult mental health services Concrete examples of the kinds of changes necessary steer the conversation to systems change. will build parents’ positive mental health and their capacity to be responsive caregivers with healthy attachments to their children. Supportive policies like these will help to promote children’s positive mental health. Explicitly linking policy to children’s mental health reinforces mental health as a social issue, not a private problem.

We now know a great deal about what can be done—both on the policy level and at the level of practice—to foster and promote the kinds of environments that enable mental health to thrive. Integrating the work of all stakeholders responsible for children’s mental health is a good place to start. This solution is too “broad strokes” or abstract to build audiences’ understanding or sense of efficacy.

Our work is focused on creating the communities and contexts that support child mental health. A great deal can be done in both policy and in clinical practice level to foster the kinds of environments that help mental health to thrive. For example, when we create policies that encourage professionals working in intersecting fields to practice in one location, we enable them to better coordinate and communicate with each other and with families. Aim for solutions that are concrete, feasible, and focused on collective or structural change.

Spread the Word

Practitioners are important framing allies who can help shift public dialogue about children’s development, mental health, and wellbeing. The “Talking Child Development” guide includes a set of strategies for explaining these complex issues accessibly and memorably. Importantly, all of these tools have been tested for their ability to build public support for policies and programs that support children’s wellbeing.

Use this guide when you need to talk about the science of brain development and what hurts or helps it. Share the guide with practitioners in the field to help them communicate more effectively with their audiences, too.

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Spread the Word

Use this guide when you need to talk about the science of brain development and what hurts or helps it.

Additional Resources

For more research recommendations on how to communicate effectively about children’s issues in Australia, check out these resources: