People can be surprised to hear the term ‘mental health’ used in relation to infants and children. Mental health is something that everyone has, and it exists on a continuum ranging from good mental health, to times when a person is feeling less well, to a variety of mental health difficulties.
Most infants and children experience good mental health and can cope well with the challenges of life, express and regulate a range of emotions, form close and secure relationships, and confidently explore their environment to an extent appropriate to their developmental stage. They will still feel sad, worried, frustrated, and angry at times, but such emotions will not lead to ongoing troubles in their ability to cope with day-to-day life.
At the other end of the spectrum, some infants and children experience more frequent or intense difficulties with their emotions, thoughts, behaviours, learning, and/or relationships. Children’s mental health is shaped by social, biological, economic and environmental factors and their growth and development are sensitive to all these influences. One way of thinking about this is to consider ‘the whole child’ – children are not only their good or bad behaviours, but are also made up of a wide range of factors, such as their personality, feelings and beliefs, social relationships, and wishes for the future.
Mental health difficulties in infants and children may look like intense struggles that are not developmentally related with emotion, thoughts, behaviours, learning, and/or relationships. Children may have trouble calming down after expressing a ‘big’ emotion, or have trouble controlling their moods, even with help. They may worry excessively about being away from their parents or home, or have problems with sleeping, eating, learning, or being around others. Sometimes they may also cry excessively or become aggressive. Often, these things are not thought of or talked about in terms of ‘child mental health’.
For more information please visit our online training course, Child Mental Health.
Children can experience trauma and adversity from a range of difficult or stressful life experiences. If these experiences are overwhelming for the child (too frightening or too painful), they can lead to a traumatic response, triggering a child’s fight, flight, or freeze response.
In many cases, children will receive support and care from their family and community and will be able work through these experiences. However, these experiences often impact the whole family, and caring relationships within the family can also be affected.
For more information on childhood trauma and adversity, please visit our online training course, Trauma and the Child.