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Early Childhood Mental Health Awareness Month

Mental health plays a foundational role in a child’s mental and physical development. A child’s home and social environment and interactions with others influence their play, learning, communication, and physical development. Disruptions to positive early childhood mental health can impose lifelong difficulties in learning and in relationships which is why early childhood mental health awareness is essential. Infant mental health is important to reduce future mental health problems and assure healthy child development.

Early Childhood Mental Health Awareness Month

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:


  • Social and Emotional
  • Language and Communication
  • Cognitive
  • Physical

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.

The Importance of Play in Child Development

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.

The Benefits of Play

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.

There Are Six Stages of Play:

  1. Unoccupied play prepares young children for the other five stages of play. Babies discover their toes are fun. They find that a toy makes a pleasing sound when they shake it. They discover that if they throw a toy, a parent may pick up that toy and return it to them for more play.

  2. Solitary play occurs when children play without involving other children or adults. Watch how a toddler explores the multitude of engaging toys on a walker or in a play seat. They explore freely, gaining fine and gross motor and cognitive skills that help ready them for social play.

  3. Onlooker play is when children watch others play. It may seem like onlooking children are scared to join in play, but actually, they are assessing the world and its interactions around them. Think of an adult sitting in a mall or at a coffeehouse watching other adults engage. It’s a learning experience that creates imagination as well as learning the rules of social activity.

  4. Parallel play occurs when children play together separately. They aren’t interacting with each other, yet are learning how each other plays, what and how they are playing. For instance, two children are playing together at a sand table but not helping each other or socially engaging. Children notice what other children are doing and take it in or mimic the same play without engaging in conversation or sharing activities. This is a normal part of the social play process.

  5. Associative play takes the observations of the first four stages of play and begins to put their social and play skills into practice with other children. They learn on a higher level that their actions have consequences. They become less focused on playing with a ball alone, for example, shifting gears into figuring out how to have someone roll or throw that ball to them.

  6. Cooperative play means that children have figured out that they can work together with other children and have fun. Children at a playground may start out playing alone but decide to join in with a group. It’s here that children discover their power within and over others at this stage. For example, more docile children may reluctantly engage in sharing. More socially confident children may engage more readily within group dynamics or rules where taking turns and negotiating for control with others may result in conflict. They may see cutting in line, taking a toy, or screaming that they get to swing first as a viable solution to getting what they want. It can be difficult for children to cooperate with others, but this is a usual way to learn cooperative play.

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.

The Importance of Providing a Secure Environment

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.

How Alcohol and Drug Addiction in Parents Can Impact Development

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

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.

Kinds of Childhood Trauma

Childhood Truama Takes Many Forms:

  • Abuse (sexual, physical, psychological)
  • Life-threatening accidents or illnesses
  • Violence in the home or community
  • Sudden loss of someone they loved
  • Physical and emotional neglect

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.

How to Help Children Express Their Emotions

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.

Parent Tips to Help Children Express Their Emotions

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.

  • When talking to children, be at their eye level. It is less intimidating.
  • Face charts depicting various facial expressions such as happy, sad, or hurt can help them express their emotions by pointing at a specific facial expression. Explain what each face means. Young children are very visual-and-tactile. Laminating the sheet of facial expressions and affixing it to their door or wall within reach can help them understand and express how they feel. Picture books are also helpful, allowing story time to become a time for learning and communication.
  • Once children identify their emotions, they need to learn how to verbally express how they feel. Ask open-ended questions using words that create trust and empathy. Asking if seeing another child cry after falling down makes them sad may just get a yes or a no answer, but it helps them connect situations with emotions. It’s typical to get a yes or a no answer to an open-ended question for children ages five and under.
  • Children who get praise for positively expressing their emotions will feel safer in doing so.
    When a preschool child is very overwhelmed and finds it hard to calm down, try the Turtle Technique. The Turtle Technique teaches them to stop after a situation and retreat for a count of 3 before coming back to express their emotions.
  • Model how children should express emotion by being a good example. Children learn what they live.

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.

Where to Look for Support

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.

References & Resources

  1. (2016). Principles of Substance Abuse Prevention Early for Early Childhood. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  2. Moyses, K. (2013). Help young children identify and express emotions. Michigan State University Extension.
  3. (n.d.). Childhood Trauma: Understanding How Trauma Impacts Mental Health and Wellness. Duquesne University School of Nursing.
  4. (n.d.). Early Childhood Mental Health. Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.
  5. (n.d.). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
  6. Rymanowicz, K. (2015). Stages of Play. Michigan State University.
  7. Vic. (2018, April 3). Children Learn Through the Experience They Live. Agape Trust.