Very young children can and do face mental health challenges.
Many factors contribute to mental health difficulties of infants and young children – including medical and developmental disorders, trauma or the stress, exposure to domestic/community violence, and environmental neglect. It is estimated that between 9.5 percent and 14.2 percent of children before the age of 5 experience an emotional or behavioral disturbance. 1 The importance of child of early childhood mental health has been highlighted by many developmental experts,2. explaining that mental health is built early in life, shaping the way the brain develops. Poor early child mental health can damage a child’s abilities to learn and relate to others throughout their entire lives. Problems, such as incarceration and homelessness, could be dramatically reduced if young children received help early in life.
It might be hard to imagine what mental health problems look like for such young children. But it is important to remember that young children experience numerous emotions and behaviors.
- Infants and toddlers have strong happiness and joy as well as sadness, grief, fear, and rage.
- Mental health problems for very young children can be seen in slow growth, delayed development, toileting concerns, frequent crying, sleep problems, aggressive behavior, and paralyzing fear.
- Symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, and other mental health disorders can been seen infancy and toddlerhood.
- When young children have behavioral concerns, there is often pressure to “wait and see.” However, recent research has found that young children with behavioral concerns experience problems with friends that can be very impairing and long lasting.
Preschool mental health concerns are treatable.
Years of research and clinical practice have found effective treatments for early childhood mental health concerns. Such interventions build positive and attuned caregiving skills , as well as coping strategies of the children. One example, Parent Child Interactional Training (PCIT), is used in our practice with young children. Sadly, most young children still do not receive necessary treatment and services. Clinicians who specialize in early childhood mental health, particularly the needs of infants and toddlers, are scarce, particularly in rural areas.
What can you do if you have a preschooler who has mental health concerns?
- Seek out a psychologist or therapist who has specialized training with young children. PCIT training is one of the best kinds of treatments for this age group.
- If you think your child may need an evaluation, seek out someone with specialization in young children. Be a good consumer. It is ok to ask a provider about their training and experience with preschool children.
- You can ask for pediatrician for a referral for a psychologist who specializes in the preschool children.
- Be proactive and address behavior problems early on, particularly if they involve other children. If you are struggling with your young child, do not ignore these problems. “Wait and see” is often not helpful, and can make it harder for things to get better later.
- Help your child to learn to navigate social rules by providing supervised opportunities for them to play in small groups for brief amounts of time. Teach him/her to request, bargain, negotiate, and apologize. Model how to speak up and use their voice appropriately.
- Teach your child to understand and cope with strong feelings by giving them words to use. “You seem SAD about going home, ANGRY at your friend ….”
- Work on building up confidence with other children through praise and effort.
- Work on self-calming, such as taking a break, or taking deep breaths when your child is struggling at home, as well as in public.
At Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants, all of our Child Psychologists are trained in specialized assessments and interventions, such as PCIT, that are proven by research and clinical experience to be effective with young children and their families.
Author: Cindy Anderson
Dr. Anderson is a Board Certified Clinical Child Psychologist. She also owns Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants. Dr. Anderson has achieved a high degree of specialization in working with children and families. She holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and completed APA Accredited internship and postdoctoral training in Clinical Child and Pediatric Psychology. She prides herself as a life-long student and tries to learn something new every day.
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