It can be hard for parents, caregivers, and teachers to recognize behavioral or emotional distress in children early on. So much so that it is often missed. Even when signs of mental health need are noticed, we may hold the misconception that it is something that will alleviate itself. While this may be true in some cases, it is not for all.
Research suggests that mental health disorders increase as children grow older (Ghandour et al., 2019) and up to one in five children meet criteria for a mental health diagnosis related to behavior, anxiety, or ADHD (Perou et al., 2013). These mental health issues often originate before the age of five, fueling the need to focus on early childhood mental health.
What is early childhood mental health?
Infants and young children can be at risk for mental health issues which, when left unaddressed, can have a lifelong negative impact. For children aged birth to five, mental health is defined as the development of social emotional skills. Social emotional skills include the ability to experience a range of emotions, form nurturing relationships, and engage in discovery/learning. (Zero To Three, 2017).
When our children struggle with the development of these social-emotional skills, it can be overwhelming for them and for us. It may feel like a never-ending hurdle and impact their long-term development, wellbeing, and learning. Encouraging young children’s social–emotional development
supports enhanced outcomes across the lifespan.
Recognizing signs of emerging mental health concerns
Almost every child will experience struggles at some time. It is a normal part of growing up. Some children, however, battle with these issues longer and harder than others.
Mental health concerns may arise at any time in a child’s development. It is not easy to tease apart typical development from responses to a unique stressor or the early emergence of mental health concerns. It is even more complicated as young children may lack the language to and often do not
verbalize their needs. Needs are revealed more subtly through the way a child expresses feelings, responds behaviorally, or engages socially.
These indicators help identify when to look further into the concern or seek treatment for a young child, especially when they persist, reflect a change, or reveal regression in areas where skills already developed. Patterns of behavior which are ongoing, intense, or interfere with a child’s social/emotional experiences or development are worthy of additional inquiry. Common indicators are evident in the
Parental distress as a risk factor for child mental health issues
Young children are very vulnerable as they rely on us to care for them. It is helpful to be aware of what is happening for you as the caregiver and how your situations may impact your relationship with your child. As parents, stressor in our life may interfere with how we engage with our child. For example, it may be harder to be present with your child and address their needs when we experience financial stress, trauma, or even life events can change how well we can engage with the children.
However, a safe, secure, and responsive relationship with caregiver or parent is key to supporting the development of social emotional skills and preventing the emergence of mental health issues. Children thrive within the context of the parent/child relationship and that is where they learn the majority of their skills. Being present to support your children can help them to feel safe and confident. As parents, it is important to understand our children’s triggers, help them to learn to regulate their feelings, and
teach them skills that set the foundation for a fulfilling and successful life.
At times, all parents need support. Getting support for yourself to deal with challenging issues can be an essential first step in helping your child succeed. Addressing your needs as parent can prevent long term
issues for the child.
It can be tricky to identify risk early in its development, but it is key for young children as it provides occasion to intervene, reduce long-term negative impact, and bolster the family and community context in which these youngsters grow. As parents, it is also important to identify and address our own needs to be able to engage well with our children.
As mental health providers who specialize in working with young children and their families, we understand that taking the steps to utilize supports can be the one of the most caring things you can do for you and your child.
Ghandour, R. M., Sherman, L. J., Vladutiu, C. J., Ali, M. M., Lynch, S. E., Bitsko, R. H., & Blumberg, S. J. (2019). Prevalence and Treatment of Depression, Anxiety, and Conduct Problems in US Children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 206, 256–267.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.09.021
Perou, R., Bitsko, R. H., Blumberg, S. J., Pastor, P., Ghandour, R. M., Gfroerer, J. C., Hedden, S. L., Crosby, A. E., Visser, S. N., Schieve, L. A., Parks, S. E., Hall, J. E., Brody, D., Simile, C. M., Thompson, W. W., Baio, J., Avenevoli, S., Kogan, M. D., Huang, L. N., & Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2013). Mental health surveillance among children--United States, 2005-2011. MMWR supplements, 62(2), 1–35.
Zero To Three (2017). The Basics of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: A Briefing Paper
Disclaimer: Information and resources provided on the internet by Harmony in Parenting - A Psychology Center, Inc.
does not constitute psychotherapy, a replacement for a therapeutic relationship, or a substitute for mental health or medical care. If having a psychiatric emergency, please visit your nearest emergency room or call 911.