What is infant and child mental health (and why is it important)?

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2020

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People can be surprised to hear the term ‘mental health’ used in relation to infants and children. Because often, when we think of mental health, we only think of problems and concerns, and conflate the idea (and stigma) of mental illness with the holistic concept of mental health and wellbeing.1,2

Most infants and children experience good mental health, particularly if their parents, family, and community are responsive to their needs. And positive mental health means positive development, which helps kids grow to be healthy and well throughout their lives.

But not every family has the resources or support they need for their children’s positive development. When we start having conversations about mental health and wellbeing early in a child’s life, we can help create opportunities for every child to thrive.

Practitioners are in a unique position to provide support to parents and help plan for children’s social and emotional development and mental health at the earliest possible stage.

Vimeo video: https://vimeo.com/466065828

Understanding child mental health

Mental health is something everyone has. A child’s mental health is not fixed, it is experienced across a range from positive mental health, to vulnerability or difficulties, through to diagnosed mental health conditions.

This is the dynamic nature of child mental health. No child’s experience is static, and it is important to consider their ‘position’ on this continuum at different times.

Children do, and should, experience a range of emotions. This is a healthy part of childhood. But when a child is unable to regulate emotions causing them to continually miss out on opportunities or not engage in play it may be a sign of mental health vulnerabilities.

Many of the social determinants affecting mental health, such as education, social inclusion, housing and income, are unequally distributed through our communities, meaning that infants and children who experience disadvantage are more likely to have poorer mental health outcomes.

 

Click the play button below to hear from Brad Morgan, Director of the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health:

What does positive mental health look like?

Infants and children need positive mental health for their physical and emotional development. The influences on mental health start before a child is born, continue in early childhood and go through to adolescence and adulthood.

Infants look to the trusted adults in their life to respond to their needs, engage, talk and play with them. Moments like these build supportive relationships, nurturing environments and provide opportunities to learn new things.

Positive mental health is foundational to emotional and physical development. It helps children learn to express and regulate a range of emotions, form other close and secure relationships, and confidently begin to explore the world around them.

A child’s mental health may look like:

There is no one picture of what positive mental health looks like in a child. It should always be considered within the context of the child’s family circumstances, cultural and spiritual beliefs, environmental factors, and their personality and temperament.

Do infants and kids experience mental health differently to adults?

Kids’ mental health difficulties can present differently to adult mental health difficulties. Mental health vulnerability or difficulties in infants and children might include frequent or intense struggles with their emotions, thoughts, behaviours, learning or relationships.

They might have trouble calming down, struggle to control their moods, find it challenging to be separated from a parent, or have problems sleeping, eating or engaging at school.

In kids, these difficulties can be interpreted as behavioural issues, or misunderstood and dismissed as intentional actions (such as ‘they’re just being ‘naughty’, ‘defiant’, or a ‘worrier’’) instead of being considered as signs of mental health challenges.

Looking out for influences on child mental health

Considering a child’s behaviour, or changes in behaviour, alongside what is happening in their world is an important part of understanding child mental health.

Throughout childhood, kids have experiences that are nurturing, and those that are stressful; experiences that are positive and negative. No one factor contributes to mental health in isolation. These experiences can have a different impact on each child, depending on their temperament, the culmination of their past experiences, broader socio-economic influences, their stage of development and the support people available to them.

Some experiences throughout childhood can have more lasting impacts on mental health. Child, parent and family stressors can include:

  • experiencing trauma – the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or severe injury
  • having a parent with physical or mental illness
  • exposure to parental alcohol or substance use
  • experiences of poverty
  • exposure to family and domestic violence
  • periods of separation from a parent, or primary carer.

The impact of any one factor can’t be predicted. For some kids, their experience of mental health is that of a diagnosable mental health condition. International studies indicate this is around 16-18% of 0–5-year-olds, and more than 13% of 4-11 year-olds in Australia experienced a diagnosable mental health condition in the past 12 months.3 Mental health conditions are not as common as positive mental health or mental health vulnerabilities, and many are temporary. But they are distinguishable by their intensity, duration and the extent of their impact on many areas of the child’s life.

 

Click the play button below to hear more from Brad Morgan:

Who can help?

Children’s mental health is everyone’s responsibility. When we support every child, family and community, and understand what their needs and desires for positive health and wellbeing are, we can create a healthier and fairer foundation for all children.

Emerging Minds supports practitioners and health workers in both child and adult services to create opportunities for positive child mental health. Simple changes to your everyday practice can make a big impact to the mental health and lives of children and parents you work with.

Practitioners are well placed to recognise influences, potential risk factors, positive opportunities and parenting skills and strengths that affect infant and child mental health. Whether you work in adult-focused services, with families, or with children, you can make simple changes to your everyday practice that can help promote positive mental health for kids now and into the future.

You can do this by:

  • asking clients who are parents about their children
  • taking a strengths-based approach to working with parents
  • working respectfully with parents to understand the impacts of parental adversity or circumstances on kids
  • working collaboratively with parents on prevention and early intervention opportunities in the life of the child
  • working collaboratively with parents on opportunities and skills that promote positive mental health and development
  • supporting children in ways that are sensitive to their experiences and enhance their social and emotional wellbeing.

It is not expected that you would diagnose mental health conditions, as this requires specialised training. When considering the severity and impact of a child’s mental health, it can be useful to ask ‘how pervasive is it?’, ‘how severe is it?’, and ‘how persistent is it?’. You can help by making referrals to specialists trained in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions.

Click the play button below to hear from Dan Moss, Workforce Development Manager at Emerging Minds:

Start learning more today

You can make a difference in the lives of children. Emerging Minds also offers a range of free e-learning courses and resources that can help you learn more about child mental health and how you can help.

Explore e-learning courses:

References:

  1. FrameWorks Institute. (2019). Widening the Lens on Child Mental Health, Internal Report for AICAFMHA
  2. FrameWorks Institute (2009) Child Mental Health: A Review of the Scientific Discourse, Internal Report
  3. Lawrence, D., Johnson, S., Hafekost, J., Boterhoven De Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J., and Zubrick, S. R. (2015). The mental health of children and adolescents. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Canberra, ACT: Department of Health.
  4. Audio snippets are from the Emerging Minds Podcast. Episodes: ‘How can a national workforce approach support children’s social and emotional wellbeing?’ with Brad Morgan the Director of the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, and ‘Six key practice positions for engaging families‘ with Dan Moss the Workforce Development Manager at Emerging Minds.

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