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November’s Early Childhood Mental Health Awareness Month focuses on what skills infants through preschoolers need to learn to be emotionally and socially connected to their world. One way to measure this connection is by meeting certain milestones within their age group.
The major milestones essential to a child are:
Children who don’t meet their age-related milestones should contact their child’s pediatrician. Early mental health screening works as young children can exhibit clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, attention issues, or neurodevelopmental disorders such as receptive or expressive language or autism.
Although very young children can show characteristics of such disorders, they don’t process them as older kids, teens, or adults do. This makes it tougher for pediatricians to diagnose early childhood mental health issues. So it’s essential for parents to pay attention to even subtle changes in their child, such as how they play and relate to others.
Play is the work of a child. It’s pivotal to developing their world and their role in it. The play has cognitive, physical, emotional, and social benefits that can’t be learned in the same way elsewhere. It’s how children learn to interact with each other, developing an understanding of social expectations and rules by watching and emulating other children.
Early childhood play encourages children to explore how to use their senses, developing a sound foundation of healthy development and critical thinking skills. Play also reinforces short-term or working memory and teaches children that actions have consequences. For instance, if they take away a toy from another child, that other child may cry or get angry.
Babies tend to explore their world individually, while toddlers tend to parallel play. Preschoolers may still parallel play but interact more frequently with other children. All are learning how to explore, pretend, to create.
The development of healthy emotional expressions and problem-solving skills is critical for a young child’s self-regulation and mental health. Play helps reduce stress, and playing with others teaches children to control and empathize. But only some children have the opportunity to learn these lessons due to unhealthy or unsafe home environments.
Children that feel safe feel secure. Persistent stress due to unsafe environments can trigger mental health issues even early in childhood. A secure environment means feeling safe in relationships and having needs met. A child who is neglected doesn’t develop emotional, physical, or social milestones like a nurtured child.
Drugs, alcohol, and other trauma can impact early childhood development in ways that can last a lifetime.
When a parent suffers from substance abuse, the entire family, including very young children, is negatively impacted. Children under age five rapidly develop trust and self-initiative during this time of gaining relationship autonomy. It’s how they become functioning members of society as they progress through childhood and teen years. In fact, brain development continues until around age 25.
Parental alcohol and drug addiction hinders early childhood mental health development through mistrust, doubt, and guilt. In addition, alcohol and drug abuse can lead to psychological and physical abuse that imposes lifelong physical and emotional scars.
A child’s entire life trajectory can be altered by parental substance abuse as early as in the womb. Mothers who drink during pregnancy risk severe developmental problems that affect different children in different ways, from birth defects to behavioral issues, to fetal death. Fetal alcohol syndrome can cause brain damage and growth defects that are irreversible. These include the central nervous system and intellectual disabilities like cerebral palsy and mixed expressive, receptive language disorder.
Childhood trauma is formally defined as an event that a child finds overwhelmingly distressing or emotionally painful, often resulting in lasting mental or physical effects.
Children may be very resilient in the face of stress or life challenges, but serious adverse experiences can make it difficult for them to cope. Some develop lifelong mental health problems stemming from early childhood neglect and mental or physical trauma.
Early childhood trauma can affect a child’s brain structure and cognitive, social, and emotional development capacity. Learning to form relationships can be especially difficult when a child loses trust and confidence.
Very young children may feel too frightened to express how they are feeling, keeping emotions bottled up inside. They may fear separation from their loved ones, suffer from nightmares, scream and cry constantly, or lose weight from poor eating habits.
Children often have a hard time identifying and expressing their emotions. Parents can help their children express their emotions by teaching them to determine how they are feeling. Identifying emotions and feelings can help a child learn about positive mental health.
Some specific actions a parent can do to help their child better express their emotions in a positive and healthy way. Mental health services can help a child learn how to positively express their emotions.
Set boundaries for what is appropriate behavior and what is not regarding the expression of emotions. Healthy and safe expressions teach children how to deal with situations and their aftermath. Acting out uncontrollably can mean anything from fear to hunger to needing a nap.
All children display all sorts of behaviors that are part of their normal development. However, when acting out becomes extreme, when it happens frequently over time in various environments, professional support may be needed when parenting knowledge and skills don’t resolve the issues.
What remains is that parents are the best advocates for their children. Parents see how their children are reaching developmental milestones. They can intervene when they are not. Some parents need support from professionals like Southern California Sunrise Recovery Center when addiction impedes their children’s early childhood mental health journey.
This is what Early Childhood Mental Health Awareness Month is all about – giving children the best foundation for lifelong emotional, social, and physical health. Responding to their mental health needs early can circumvent mental health issues that don’t have to happen.