Nurturing the Mental Health of Young Children

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(Family Features) The earliest years of children’s lives lay the foundation for their social and emotional well-being, setting the stage for success in school and beyond. For parents, caregivers and educators, it’s crucial to prioritize and nurture the mental health of children in their care.

Dr. Lauren Loquasto, senior vice president and chief academic officer at The Goddard School, and Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and member of The Goddard School’s Educational Advisory Board, share this insight and guidance to support children’s mental well-being.

Understanding Mental Health in Young Children
Mental health influences how everyone – including young children – thinks, feels and behaves, impacting the ability to cope with stress, build relationships and navigate life.

The development of mental makeup is influenced by both nature (inherited genetic and biological factors) and nurture (environmental factors). Each person is a combination of a unique temperament combined with life experiences, including family, culture and education.

In young children, there is no distinction between mental and physical health. The brain and body are growing and developing rapidly. By 6 months, children can begin to feel overwhelmed by negative experiences. It’s vital to understand that the earliest interactions with children can have lasting social and emotional consequences.

Causes for Concern
When it comes to young children’s mental health, there’s no straight line dividing expected and worrisome behaviors. That line is wiggly and can shift. That said, it’s always concerning when children fall off their developmental tracks.

Infants are expected to partake in “serve and return” activities. They provide signals about how they feel or what they need and caregivers respond to those cues. When those signals stop and the child becomes exceedingly passive, that’s a concern.

Toddler troubles are among the most difficult to diagnose. Many are familiar with the concept of the “terrible twos;” deciphering between developmentally appropriate and worrisome behaviors can be challenging. Signs of concern – especially if they occur constantly – include excessive aggressiveness, a consistent lack of control and screaming instead of talking.

For pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners, tantrums should be over. They should be interested in making friends and mastering their vocabulary and language. If they aren’t displaying interests or are exhibiting a lack of self-regulation, such as hurting others or animals, seeking help is appropriate.

Seeking Help
If concerns are identified, parents should contact their pediatric care provider. In some cases, they may recommend seeking assistance from a mental health provider, such as a therapist. Selecting the right provider – one with training and experience with working with children – is essential. Lean on your network, including your pediatric care provider, friends and family, to identify the best option.

Supporting Early Social and Emotional Development

  1. Understand your child’s behavior – particularly if they aren’t verbal – is their way of communicating. Narrate what your child is experiencing and label emotions. For example, “I see you’re angry. Can I help you put your shoes on?”
     
  2. Model social and emotional self-control. For example, “I’m frustrated. I’m going to pause, take deep breaths then tell you what I need.” This gives children coping techniques they can practice themselves.
     
  3. Be a good example. Model, for instance, how to be a good friend, show respect and use good manners.
     
  4. Partner with your child’s teachers. There should be two-way dialogue presenting potential concerns.
     
  5. Don’t rush to diagnose issues. Remember children save their “toxic waste” – big, negative feelings – for their parents because they trust them. Your experiences with your child may be different than others’ experiences. Be cautious to avoid a quick reaction. Work to understand what your child is trying to convey. Seek information from others.
     
  6. If a child is exhibiting anxious behavior, which is normal when encountering new situations, be present, listen, observe, answer questions, label emotions and provide reassurance. Don’t overreact to fears. Young children are learning to deal with the unknown and, just like learning to ride a bike, it takes time and comfort to develop the skills to manage those emotions.

To watch a webinar featuring Loquasto and Pruett providing additional guidance, and access actionable parenting insights and resources, visit the Parent Resource Center at GoddardSchool.com.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock






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