Mental Health Starts Early

“Boys will be boys.” How many times have we heard this age-old adage to explain a young male’s rambunctious behavior? As a mother of many boys, I myself used this logic from time to time to explain behaviors that may not have been perfect (we’re all imperfect, and that’s ok). The good news about children and their behavior today is that these go-to sayings are now received in a different light. Pediatricians and early childhood developmental specialists are taking a good, hard look at early childhood behaviors and, with the help of research, are determining key behavioral milestones in childhood development and how to fortify healthy brain development. Their findings have determined that practices such as limiting screen time (30 minutes a WEEK), practicing “serve and return language volleys”, and the simplicity of touch all contribute to the growth of physically and mentally healthy children.

One of the most amazing facts about children ages birth to three is that their brains are developing one million new neural connections each second. Early childhood is an incredible time to teach healthy behaviors and influence a child’s path to curious and inquisitive discovery.  It is also a time where trauma may create a lasting imprint on a child’s healthy development. Trauma in a young child can manifest in behaviors that are consistent with anxiety—sleep disturbances, potty training regression and aggressive behavior. Anxiety relief in children can be accomplished by simple activities like playing outdoors, drawing and rest. Identifying those outlets early and offering that to a child before they are less able to cope is an easy way to deescalate anxiety. Simple actions early can also help the child discover their own outlets to stress relief! Offer a child the opportunity to blow bubbles—prompt them to take a deep breath in and then release. This breathing technique is used in yoga and other mindfulness practices to help reduce stress, and it is fun at the same time.

Especially today, with the overload of data, statistics, milestones, and other people’s children trending on social media, it can be easy to wonder about your decisions as a parent. The best advice I can offer is: You need to trust your instincts. Is your baby smiling and tracking your movements at six months old? Has your child’s vocabulary continued to grow: it is descriptive and not just repetitive? Does your child like to play pretend? Not all children develop skills at the same time and in the same sequence, but you as a parent can continue to stimulate your child’s development. Quick tip: keeping a baby book is still a great record for your child’s milestones—you may observe and record some behaviors in different settings that lead to behaviors at a later date!

Do not be afraid to ask your pediatrician or nurse if behaviors are “normal”—they will guide and help you with concerns or questions. The pediatric community has added emotional and behavioral checks to the already established well-baby and immunization visits. Having an established and consistent relationship with a pediatric provider can help identify anxiety and behaviors sooner than later. The ability to identify maladaptive behaviors early sets a child on the path to healing or early interventions.