Mental health starts in childhood, child development experts tell parents

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Did you know that babies can become depressed? Andria Goss, associate vice president of clinical and community services at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for social work, early education and child development programs, said people are surprised when they learn and appreciate that fact.

“Babies experience everything as a physical feeling: if a parent is stressed, depressed and/or anxious, the baby picks up on that,” she said.

“Imagine a mother who has her own stress and sometimes she can concentrate on her baby and other times she is interacting, angry, or not attuned to the baby, and not doing the things the baby wants.” They have this on-off, on-off repeatedly. The baby doesn’t know what to do with it because the baby is working hard to get a smile, to coo and it doesn’t happen at some point , with all those failed attempts, the baby stops trying and withdraws.”

Goss said that while this is an extreme example, it illustrates how babies pick up stressors from their environment and don’t know what to do with them. When such interactions become chronic, it can cause problems in the parent-child relationship.

The Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families provides in-person and online mental health care to children as young as newborns and their families in and around Chicago from its River North and Little Village locations and has done so for decades.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six American children between the ages of 2 and 8 has a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder, and among that group, boys are more likely than girls to develop such a disorder.

“What we do at the Center for Children and Families is more of a preventative measure,” Goss said. “The expectation is that babies will integrate into my life. But that’s not their job. That’s our job (as adults and as parents).”

When families and schools determine that something may not be working for a child, they contact CCF, which focuses on relationship-oriented therapy. The center tries to connect the dots when there is a disconnect and a child cannot regulate their emotions and is less able to explore and learn.

“When we look at mental health and psychiatric issues, it’s a nature-nurture situation — we call it a vulnerability stress model,” says Sally Weinstein, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate director of the University of Illinois Center on Depression and Resilience.

“We are all born into this world with some biological vulnerabilities that we inherit. And these can interact with our environment in ways that can either be protective of our development or detrimental to our development. It is that combination that influences the development, even of young children.”

The goal of therapy is to strengthen attunement – ​​a person’s ability to be aware of and responsive to a child’s needs – to develop the child’s and caregiver’s capabilities, their relationship and the way in which caregiver can experience and raise the child.

“What do you want for your baby, to be attuned to where your baby is and what he/she needs? We’re unpacking those kinds of things,” Goss said.

CCF gets to the core of this in a playful way. Licensed clinical social worker and CCF director Sara Phou said the majority of families they serve have children ages 3 to 6 who receive 18 months of therapy. The center connects caregivers with therapists to identify challenges in the caregiver-child relationship before the child is brought in. When the child comes to a CCF location, therapists observe the child playing with his caregiver while a clinician notes the play. unfolding, the themes, the feelings involved.

“(Children) use play to develop, to understand the world, but also as a way to help share how they think and feel,” Phou said.

For example, if a child plays with cars and races through a city knocking over blocks containing a good guy and a bad guy, the child may be trying to make sense of good and evil in the world. “We can join them and help regulate the car,” Phou said. “Using the game as an extension of themselves and working through that could provide a gateway, a way for them to internalize it.”

All behavior is a communication, Goss said. “We try to understand what the child is struggling with,” she said. “We want to evaluate cognitive skills, motor skills, social and emotional skills… it’s not a one size fits all.”

Goss said the center meets families where they are and works with them from perspectives that take into account race, culture and their environment. By following their child’s example and working in therapy, caregivers make change in their child’s life possible.

Participating in therapy allows caregivers to self-regulate so they can help regulate their child. And caregivers and parents have more confidence in understanding what is happening to their child. Once family units feel stronger, parents can experience a sense of efficacy and feel that whatever happens, they can deal with it.

“Play is so important for development. … It’s the power of connection for little ones around who they are, you want to connect with them around something that is of value to them,” Phou said. “There’s about 10 minutes a day of exploration: If you follow your child’s lead and play with him for 10 minutes a day, that’s all he or she needs to build that connection. … That will be a huge protective factor are for their mental health.”

Weinstein agrees that the short time can help children build trust with their parents and help parents build confidence and competence. Phou said 10 minutes of daily play can be more beneficial than hours of scheduled family time every few months.

“Finding moments where there is joy and joy, in who they are, and it feels good for both of you, will benefit the relationship and that connection,” Phou said.

But how does a parent know when a problem is escalating into something that needs intervention, especially when there is such a wide range of child development and so many symptoms of mental health problems that resemble what a normal childhood looks like: mood variability, big emotions, irritability, all of which can be part of a child’s experience?

Weinstein said parents should watch for any disruption or deviation from typical milestones, such as toilet training, talking and walking, and take into account feedback from people around your child, such as preschool teachers or daycare workers who may notice if your child is struggling.

“Even though children’s brains change so much and therefore have big emotions and difficulty regulating emotions, the good news is that the brain is still developing and is very malleable,” says Weinstein. “So the more intervention, love and support, the more we can modify some difficulties.”

Early in the pandemic, Weinstein and Goss both noticed an increase in referrals for mental health help and young people seeking help on their own without parental prompting. The shift shows a growing acceptance of therapy, they said.

“If there is a challenge around a young child’s mental health, treatment is not just for the child,” Phou said. “We work with both the caregiver and the child and support that caregiver to help them think about what they can bring to the equation and how they can support their child and what their child brings to the equation.”

Goss added that this can be challenging because caregivers must look at themselves in relation to their child and how they engage and connect to create change.

For new parents, who may be dealing with sleep deprivation, burnout or a lack of sense of effectiveness, Weinstein says their mental health is critical. She suggests that parents consider getting support by talking to other new parents or their pediatrician. Because parents are the experts on their children, they are also the first line of defense when it comes to interventions.

“There are no hard and fast rules, even if a teacher says I see your child is struggling, that is not a reason to panic, but always a reason to seek and gain support and more understanding about the ways in which you are helping your child can help,” said Weinstein.

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