Current Article


(appearing in Education Connect , 2008)

The Psychology of Children's Mental Health

Professor Michael E. Bernard
Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne

It's Time to Educate All Young People that "Things Are Neither Good Nor Bad But Thinking Makes It So".

Over the past 10 or more years, the psychology of children's mental health and wellbeing has been intensively studied to understand the attitudes and patterns of thinking that are associated with not only poor mental health such as extreme anxiety, depression and anger, but also with positive mental health and wellbeing. We have learned a great deal from the theory and research of Albert Ellis (e.g., Ellis & Bernard, 2006), Martin Seligman (e.g., 1998), Albert Bandura (e.g., 1997) and others including my own research (e.g., Bernard, 2008) who have put the psychology of children's mental health and wellbeing under the microscope.

This collective work has lead to important new insights; important, because we now have a new "mental health roadmap" that enables us to achieve two things. One is to understand and through education weaken those attitudes and ways of thinking that negatively impact mental health. The other is to strengthen, through education, those attitudes that support positive thinking, feeling and behaving to promote the wellbeing of young people.

Drawing from the research, let me now describe four important concepts and principles surrounding the role of cognition and patterns of thinking which underpin children's mental health and wellbeing.

1. There are two dimensions of children's psychological functioning each of which impacts their mental health and wellbeing.

Children are born with an innate capacity to think irrationally (in ways that are not logical/sensible, empirical and helpful). This human disposition exerts its influence across the life span and precludes the possibility of perfect mental health.

What moderates the influence of irrationality is the development of logical reasoning abilities and the capacity for rational thinking which emerge around the age of eight (Piaget's concrete operational stage of development) with abstract reasoning abilities developing more fully around the age of 12 (formal operational stage of development). Piaget described the stage of mental development of two to eight-year olds as "pre-concrete operational" with young children's thinking displaying the following characteristics:

  • drawing arbitrary inferences - conclusions not based on evidence or when evidence contradicts conclusion
  • selective abstraction - focusing on a detail taken out of context, ignoring salient features of the situation
  • magnification/minimisation - errors in evaluating significance of event
  • personalisation - tendency to relate external events to themselves when no basis for making connection
  • overgeneralisation - drawing a conclusion based on limited and isolated events
  • dichotomous thinking - tendency to place events into opposite categories (e.g., good-bad)

Older children, adolescents and adults who experience extreme anger, depression and anxiety revert to cognitive functioning and ways of thinking that are characteristic of this pre-concrete operational stage of development.

Children who manifest mental health problems often present with developmental delays in their capacity to think logically and rationally concerning affective-interpersonal issues (e.g., have difficulty keeping things in perspective, personalising negative experiences) as well as in the development of other emotional self-management skills (e.g., relaxation, finding someone to talk with). They also are dominated by a range of irrational beliefs including self-depreciation, low frustration tolerance, and the lack of acceptance of others.

2. Young people are active in constructing the meaning of life's events.

We have now learned that the impact of events on young people's mental health and wellbeing is greatly influenced by their attitudes and thoughts about what happens in their lives. This key finding has produced a revolution in the understanding, treatment and prevention of children's mental health problems. Rather than viewing child and adolescent mental health responses to their environment as being caused by the environment (e.g., rejection by others, academic difficulties), we now know that mental health responses of young people are strongly influenced by the way they think about and talk to themselves about what is going on in their world. It is not the world but their interpretations and evaluations of the world that are key to understanding the psychology of mental health.

3.The attitude of "Self-Acceptance" is a cornerstone of children's wellbeing while "Self-Depreciation" is a leading contributor to anxiety, depression and anger.

Many young people who get depressed or anxious or very angry have a tendency to put themselves down (irrational belief referred to as "self-depreciation"). When difficult or threatening circumstances occur (no one wanting to play with them, not reading as well as others, not being selected for a sporting team, having a break-up with a friend, having a run in with a teacher or parent), they have a habit of irrationally concluding: "This shows that I'm no good. I must be a real loser ands will always be a loser." It can be seen that this thinking is irrational thinking as it is not logical/sensible, true (based on evidence) or helpful.

"Self-acceptance" is a rational, positive attitude that helps young people cope with negative life events such as not achieving their goals and being rejected by others without becoming depressed. "Self-acceptance" means that children do not rate themselves in terms of their behaviour and are able to separate judgments of their actions from judgments of their self-worth. They acknowledge and accept responsibility for their traitsand behaviours-both good and bad- without evaluating themselvesas good or bad. They accept themselves unconditionally without having to prove themselves. In contrast to "self-depreciation," "self-acceptance" is seen in the following example of rational self-talk that accompanies not doing well on an exam: "Even though what happened was bad and maybe I didn't do as well as I could have, I know I am not a total failure. I am still smart and capable and I will do better next time." My own research has shown clearly that children who have difficulty managing their emotions are self-downers almost by nature (Bernard & Cronan, 1999).

Other negative, irrational attitudes and thinking errors discovered in research can impact children's mental health. These need to be weakened and re-structured with more positive, rational ones. The negative and irrational attitudes include:

  • pessimism("I can't do it and never will"),
  • external locus of control("I have no control over what happens to me and how I feel and behave"),
  • low frustration tolerance, ("Everything in life should be fun, comfortable and easy and I cannot stand frustration of any sort."),
  • intolerance of others("People should behave the way I want and do my bidding when they do not or when they are different, they deserve to be punished.") and
  • catastrophising("Things that happen to me such as mistakes, being laughed at, or not having my way are awful and terrible, the worst things in the world.")

4. Well-researched mental health and wellbeing prevention and intervention programs exist for use in schools that can help all young people to think more rationally and, as a consequence, reduce poor mental health and promote positive wellbeing.

The point to be made here is that from an individual psychology perspective, young people can be taught more mentally healthy ways to think about themselves, others and the world. However, while explicit teaching of the ABCs of mental health and wellbeing has a well-established tradition in the field of mental health promotion and positive psychology, those that implement such programs and those in education and schools who make decisions about which programs should be taught to all young people do not always agree that mental health concepts and skills can be explicitly taught. It is often the case in education that wellbeing is considered as a social and cultural phenomena with solutions being found in the promotion of more caring environments and relationships and not through the empowerment of the individual.

Many evaluation studies have appeared in the professional literature that collectively demonstrate that young people can be taught concepts and principles of positive mental health including how to cognitively restructure their own thinking to rely more on positive, rational functioning rather than negative, irrational mental functioning. They can, for example, be taught to challenge and change their tendencies towards self-downing and to become more self-accepting (e.g., Hajzler & Bernard, 1991; Bernard, Ellis & Terjesen, 2006)

Is the individual psychology of young people the only influence on their mental health and wellbeing? The research indicates that there are a host of environmental factors (e.g., parents, teachers, peers) as well as inherited biological dispositions that also impact wellbeing outcomes. However, it is important that people involved in developing mental health policies and programs, do not view poor mental health as purely a community, family or social problem. Students need to be "brought up to speed" with the mental health lessons that have been learned over many years; namely, "People are not affected by events but by the view they take of events" (Epictetus, 2nd Century A.D.).

I will end this brief overview of the psychology of children's mental health with a quote from a year 9 male student who attended a group counselling program I conducted for students referred for "low self-esteem." I believe his view captures the potential, importance and power of teaching all young people about the psychology of mental health -not just those who are in crisis.

"That before coming here, everything that went wrong I used to blame it on myself, I used to say I was no good at anything, and why don't I just kill myself. I didn't know the meaning of Rational or Erational (sic) thoughts-they have slowly changed the way I think, so I don't get upset as I used to. I used to think of my bad points but now I also think of my good points, so now I don't go off my rocker. I am lucky to be able to think Rational thoughts."


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control . New York: W.H. Freeman.

Bernard, M.E. (2008). The social and emotional well-being of Australian children and adolescents: The discovery of "levels." Proceedings of the Australian Psychological Society Annual Conference, 43 , 41-45.

Bernard, M.E., & Cronan, F. (1999). The Child and Adolescent Scale of Irrationality: Validation data and mental health correlates. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 13 , 121-132.

Bernard, M.E., Ellis, A. & Terjesen, M. (2006). Rational Emotive Behavioral approaches to childhood disorders: History, theory, treatment, research. In A. Ellis & M.E.

Bernard (Eds.), Rational Emotive Behavioral Approaches to the Problems of Childhood(pps.3-84). New York: Springer.

Ellis, A., & Bernard, M.E. (Eds.). (2006). Rational Emotive Behavioral Approaches to Childhood Disorders . New York: Springer.

Hajzler, D.J. & Bernard, M.E. (1991). A review of rational-emotive education outcome studies. School Psychology Quarterly, 6 , 27-49.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1998). Learned Optimism . New York: Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster).

Professor Michael E. Bernard, is a registered psychologist and Founder of You Can Do It! Education (www.youcandoit.com.au), one of Australia's leading preventative mental health programs. Professor Bernard can be contacted on: m.bernard@unimelb.edu.au