What Should Parents Know About Childhood Mental Health?

Children’s emotions are mercurial, changing from one moment to the next and their behaviors follow suit. Young children respond to emotional and traumatic events very different than older children and adults which makes it hard to distinguish the difference between typical child development behaviors and ones that are cause for concern.

While some children are born with mental health issues, others that have been frequently exposed to traumatic circumstances and toxic stress such as family stress, prolonged poverty, poor child care conditions, abuse, chronic neglect, domestic violence, or parental mental health or substance abuse problems are very vulnerable. Because the early brain is developing at a faster rate than any other period, these negative life events can cause mental health problems to emerge quickly after they have happened or later in life.

What Are Childhood Mental Health Disorders and Symptoms?
Occasional challenging behaviors, while frustrating, do not indicate a mental disorder. However, children can show clear characteristics of anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as autism, at a very early age. 

Parents and care givers should pay attention to serious changes in the way their child typically learns, behaves, handles their emotions and interacts with others during their day. Here are some behaviors to keep an eye on:

  • How do they play with friends or while alone?

  • Changes in appetite or sleep.

  • Repeated thoughts of death.

  • Any changes in speaking?

  • Signs of being upset, like sadness, crying easily and often, and loss of joy.

  • Once they are bothered, do they have a hard time rebounding and getting through the rest of their day?

  • Are they having problems in more than one setting, such as at school and at home?

  • Exhibiting behaviors associated with younger children, such as sucking their thumb or bedwetting.

  • Self-destructive behavior or talk of hurting others.

Toxic stress and other mental health issues, if not treated early, can impair a child’s self-esteem, their relationships with peers, school readiness, academic achievement, physical and mental health, as well as later cause them to make unhealthy life decisions and repeat some of the same behaviors with their own children.

Provide a Positive Environment for Your Child’s Mental Growth
The science around a child’s brain and development indicate that the foundation for positive mental health is formed early in life based on relationships with parents, caregivers, family members and peers. Here’s a few ways to help build sound mental health in your child:

  • Frequently demonstrate that you love your child and tell them “I love you” often.

  • Teach your child about compassion, and exemplify it in front of them.

  • Be understanding in situations with your child and others, and help them to learn patience and understanding with others.

  • Establish trust with your child at an early age.

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