For children, ages birth-5 years old, mental health begins with how they form close relationships with caregivers, manage and express their emotions, and explore the environment and learn. A child's development is cumulative, building on previous milestones, which is why it's important to establish safety early on, both physically and emotionally, so that children can thrive in these areas.
How Can You Promote Your Young Child’s Mental Health?
- Provide Safety and Love
Children need to know that no matter what, their caregiver will love them unconditionally and they are safe to make mistakes. Children are learning so much in the first five years, from how to form relationships to social, emotional, and regulation skills - the learning that occurs in these initial years sets the stage for all future development. Children feel safest when they are in a secure relationship with their primary caregivers, and when children feel safe, they are better able to learn and develop.
- Practice Self-Care
Children are able to pick up on the stress levels of close caregivers. Everyone experiences stress at some point, and a normal range of stress actually promotes growth and development. But too much stress can impede on development, and if a child is experiencing too much stress, it can affect their ability to learn and grow. By taking care of yourself and your well-being, you are unconsciously promoting your child's mental health. When the adults who care for young children are calm and relaxed, this feeling passes onto our babies and children.
- Give Yourself Grace
Parents do not need to be perfect, you only need to be “good enough.” This means parents can make mistakes and still provide safety and security to their children. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs on the planet, so remember to give yourself some grace - you are learning and growing just as much as your child. Things can get frustrating and tiring, but remember that your child's primary tasks in the first five years are to maintain safety, and explore and learn from the world around them. However, they need to know what appropriate limits are and what behaviors are acceptable. Discipline is an essential part of this learning. When rules are broken, teach them the skill that was missing instead of punishing the children for not knowing what to do. Practice being firm AND kind.
- Provide Choices and Empathy
Playtime is very important in your child's development, but remember that the caregiver-child interaction during playtime is making the most impact. Young children prefer relationships over toys and would much rather sit on a caregiver's lap and read a book or play “peek-a-boo” than play alone. This time together is when your child can learn from you how to express their feelings, and a time when you can watch how they express themselves through play. Children love to receive praise from their caregivers, so positive encouragement during playtime is essential. Praise establishes feelings of self-worth and children thrive from this connection. And often, positive reinforcement like this encourages your child to replicate that good behavior or accomplishment in other areas.
Even the youngest children can benefit from mental health intervention as problems can develop in any child. Consider intervention if you have concerns about your child with any of the following:
- Lacks emotion
- Rejects connection
- Difficulty managing emotions and impulses
- Extremely fearful
- Violent or aggressive
- Difficulties sleeping or feeding
- Extremely clingy or sad
All children go through challenging phases and it doesn't always mean they have mental health issues. When the challenges feel like they are “too much” you should reach out for help right away. The earlier children and parents seek help, the easier it can be to learn positive behaviors.
No one knows your child better than you. If you have concerns, support is available.
This blog article was contributed by Sara McGee, Clinical Supervisor for Nexus-FACTS, an agency of Nexus 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 45 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.