5 Things About Early Childhood Mental Health

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5 Things About Early Childhood Mental Health

Mental health plays an important role in everyone’s wellbeing, even babies and young children.

Mental health refers to the way we think, feel, relate to others, handle stress, and make decisions. It also includes the way we see ourselves. Mental health problems can occur at any age, and can include conditions such as anxiety and depression. Often, mental health problems in children lead to challenges with behaviour and attention. Young children process and respond to stressful situations differently than older children and adults. It is important for people who work with young children to keep this in mind.

Early relationships and experiences lay the foundation for mental healthacross the lifespan.

Research indicates that children who are raised in a loving and nurturing environment with attentive and consistent caregivers are more likely to experience a lifetime of healthy mental development than children who endure abuse and neglect.

It is important to note that the mental health of a parent or caregiver can impact the mental healthof a child. Although genetics undeniably play an important role in early brain development, experiences and environments can impact mental health in either a positive or negative way. We can promote children’s mental health by fostering safe, stable and nurturing environments for babies and young children.

Frequent or prolonged exposure to chronic stress can negatively affect thedeveloping brain.

When we experience stress, our bodies respond by releasing stress hormones. In large amounts, stress hormones can impact nerve cell growth. Children who are exposed to chronic stressors (such as physical or emotional abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, caregiver depression or poverty) can actually experience a disruption in brain development which can impact learning, behaviour and healtheffects of chronic stress in early childhood can last a lifetime.

Protective factors may buffer the effects of chronic stress.

Even when bad things happen, children who have certain protective factors are more likely to be resilient or “bounce back” from adversity. These factors include:
  • Caring relationships with adults
  • Healthy self-esteem
  • Good physical health and development
  • Good social skills
  • Positive relationships with peers
  • Sense of control over some situations

Early identification and intervention is crucial.

Intervention is more likely to be successful when concerns are identified and addressed early. Developmental screening can detect problems early on, before the problem becomes overwhelming. Developmental screening can be completed by physicians, nurses, social workers, child care providers, or other professionals who work with young children.

Screening can even be completed by a parent or other caregiver. It is important that parents know and understand the results of the screening, share the information with their child’s primary care provider and other professional supports, and follow up on referrals to specialists when necessary. Early intervention should always occur within the context of relationships.