While conversations around children’s mental health have entered the mainstream, often children who are newborns to age six are left out due to misconceptions that they won’t remember the things happening at this point in their life. But science shows us differently – children’s mental health begins developing before they are even born.
Fight, flight, or freeze – a familiar phrase about our brain’s response to danger and stress. Many may not know that infants and small children also experience this brain reaction, even in utero. A child’s developing brain is constantly responding to new stimuli, so when a pregnant person is experiencing extreme stress and/or trauma or other adverse behaviors like drugs and alcohol consumption, this can impact the fetus as well. And after a child is born, as their brain continues to develop, experiencing adverse events (such as abuse, neglect, witnessing violence in the home, etc.) can rewire and harm the crucial parts of an infant and/or small child’s development, like forming bonds with caretakers, being soothed, and feeling safe to explore and learn from their environment. Developing these skills is crucial for their behaviors later in life, like forming healthy adult relationships, resolving conflict, and managing stressors.
Signs of Stress and Trauma and When to Seek Support
Symptoms of stress and trauma looks different in infants and young children than older youth and adults. Since children experience rapid physical and mental changes, especially in their early years, caregivers can struggle with knowing if a child is developing the way they should. While they may seem physically healthy, there are certain signs to look for to determine if they are struggling with mental health and may benefit from professional support.
Signs that a child may need professional mental health care can be:
- Infants can’t use their fight or flight systems, so they freeze, which may present as looking away, appearing to be ‘checked out,’ or daydreaming.
- Troubles with sleeping, eating, or being soothed.
- Toddlers, on the other hand, are more likely to engage with their flight or fight systems. This can look like throwing a tantrum, being reckless or accident prone, unable to accept help from an adult, or shutting down and not talking/having delays in speech development.
- They may have issues processing sensory input like sounds, smells, or touch – or they may be less sensitive. This can apply to older children as well.
- Difficulty calming when comforted by a familiar adult.
- Extreme difficulty or distress with transitions.
- Difficulties interacting and playing with peers.
- Aggressive behaviors toward adults or peers.
- Challenges with maintaining attention.
- Self-injurious behaviors, including head-banging or biting self.
- Regression of any developmental tasks (for example, a child no longer speaking or a previously toilet-trained child having frequent accidents).
- Caregivers feeling distressed by a child’s behaviors or feeling as though their child is “difficult.”
- Caregivers or family unable to participate in usual activities.
- Lack of joy between a child and caregiver.
Approaches to Care
Infants and young children require different mental health support than others, and due to their lack of language and cognitive development, often need care that includes “dyadic intervention” – therapy that supports the child, their caregiver, and their relationship. These therapies often use playtime and experience-based activities to teach new skills and so the caretaker can practice new ways in engaging with the child.
Mental health providers working with small children and infants will assess a child by looking at these parts of development and seeing how they are forming attachments to caretakers, what stressors or trauma they’ve experienced, and the culture they come from as these all contribute to how a child learns and experiences the world.
It's also crucial for a caregiver to recognize adverse or positive experiences they had as children and how they impact their care of an infant and/or small child. Caregivers can work with mental health providers to help identify these experiences and how they influence their role as a caregiver.
Caregivers or important adults who have experienced stress and trauma may also contribute to a young child’s mental health in a process referred to as generational trauma. We know that trauma impacts the brain, which then impacts thoughts and behaviors, including how a caregiver may notice or respond to their child’s fear or distress.
With the correct care and support, children can make lasting changes. An early childhood mental health professional can support caregivers with better understanding the experience of the child, identifying changes adults can make to support the child’s learning needs, and identify additional professionals that may help a child meet their development goals.
This blog article was contributed by Nicole DeWeese, Clinical Supervisor at Nexus-FACTS Family Healing.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org