Parenting Resource

How to Prevent Mental Health Problems? Begin at the Beginning With Infants and Toddlers

Jun 3, 2015

Here's how we can identify mental health problems in young children and effectively treat them.

This is excerpted from the second blog post in a three-part series exploring the mental health needs of very young children. Click here for the full article.

Preventing mental health problems means starting in the earliest years of life to promote healthy social and emotional development, identify and address concerns as soon as possible, and support those who surround young children.

A new report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows a downward trajectory in severe mental health issues for children between the ages of 6 and 17. On the surface, this is good news. Yet on the flip side, the study also reveals a troubling pattern of young people without access to mental health treatments from which they can truly benefit.

Lost in the narrative completely are the youngest set of children—specifically infants and toddlers. With preschool expulsion rates at more than three times the expulsion rate of students in kindergarten through 12th grade, it’s clear that the mental health needs of infants and toddlers can no longer be overlooked. It’s time we took a serious look at infant and early childhood mental health and strategies to prevent mental health problems before they start.

So how do we bolster positive mental health in young children and ensure that challenges are detected early? The key is to integrate mental health prevention services into the settings where children spend their time—at home, child care or the doctor’s office. Here is how we can ensure this happens:

  • Educate parents and caregivers about social and emotional development.
  • When mental health concerns exist for young children, link parents to early intervention programs in the community that are adequately prepared to screen for and treat social-emotional difficulties in a two-generation, dyadic fashion.
  • Screen parents for depression.
  • Help pediatricians support infant and early childhood mental health.
  • Ensure that child care providers are prepared to promote and support healthy social and emotional development.
  • Integrate mental health prevention strategies into other programs that serve young children and their families.
  • Implement early child care mental health consultation and other promotion/prevention models.

Preventing mental health problems means starting in the earliest years of life to promote healthy social and emotional development, identify and address concerns as soon as possible, and support those who surround young children. There are ways to identify mental health problems in young children, and to effectively treat them. Parents, pediatricians, home visitors and child care providers can be the “first responders” to mental health concerns. Catching problems early, and intervening before they become more serious, will provide the best chance of helping all young children succeed and lead healthy, happy lives.