The large body of research shows that the foundation for good mental health is built early in life. It is largely the result of healthy relationships between the child with their parents and other caregivers.
Good mental health
Good mental health provides an essential foundation of stability that supports all other aspects of human development — from the formation of friendships to the achievement of success in school, work, and life.
An unstable foundation
Similar to the way a wobbly table may not function well if the floor is uneven, the legs are not aligned, or the tabletop is not level, the destabilizing consequences of problems in mental health can be caused by many interdependent factors. Just as small “wobbles” in a table can become bigger and more difficult to fix over time, the effective management of mental health concerns in young children requires early identification of the causes and appropriate attention to their source.
Things to know
Diagnosis of mental health in early childhood is difficult: Mental health problems can occur in young children, often as a result of toxic stress, trauma, neglect, or abuse. Children then may show anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or neuro-developmental disabilities, such as autism. But, as young children respond to emotional experiences and traumatic events in ways that are very different from older children, it can be much more difficult to diagnose in early childhood than it is in adults.
Genetics and environmental factors are involved: All experiences — good or bad — leave a chemical imprint on the genes which determine whether and how genes are expressed. This field is called epigenetics. Although our genes contain instructions that tell our bodies how to work, the environment can express or prevent those instructions from being carried out. The interaction between genetic predispositions and sustained, stress-inducing experiences early in life can lay an unstable foundation for mental health that endures well into adulthood.
Effects of chronic stress on the developing brain: Toxic stress can damage the framework of the developing brain and increase the chances of serious mental health problems that may emerge years later. A toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity – such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, exposure to violence, or a drug-abusing or mentally unstable caregiver. Because of its enduring effects on brain development, toxic stress can impair physical and mental health in children.
The ability of children to recover: Although some children show remarkable capacities to overcome the severe challenges of early, persistent maltreatment, trauma, and emotional harm, there are limits to their ability to recover psychologically from such adversity. Even when a child has been removed from traumatizing circumstances and placed in exceptionally nurturing homes, developmental improvements are usually accompanied by continuing problems in self-regulation, emotional adaptability, relating to others, and self-understanding.
What to do?
If you think that your child shows mental health problems because the little one is exposed to environments that seem harmful, you should try to make drastic changes to your child’s circumstances in order to prevent further harm. You may also want to seek help from your family, public services, or a professional child psychologist.
Dr. Piyawut Kreetapirom, MD. (26 January 2019)