Parenting Resource

Effective Mental Health Treatment for Young Children and their Families

Jul 13, 2015

Years of research and clinical expertise have resulted in effective treatments for infant and early childhood mental health disorders. Here's how interventions work to build positive and attuned caregiving skills, teach problem-solving and coping strategies, and enhance support systems.

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

Photo: Kiwi Street Studios

Young children can and do face mental health challenges. Many factors contribute to mental health difficulties of infants and young children—from medical and developmental disorders to exposure to adversity, such as trauma or the stress that can come from situations such as witnessing domestic/community violence or living in poverty. It is estimated that between 9.5 percent and 14.2 percent of children age birth-5 experience an emotional or behavioral disturbance.

It might be hard to imagine what mental health problems look like for such young children. But like any person, young children experience a range of emotions and react and recall situations in unique and dynamic ways. For instance:

Years of research and clinical expertise have resulted in effective treatments for infant and early childhood mental health disorders. Such interventions work to build positive and attuned caregiving skills, teach problem solving and coping strategies, and enhance support systems. For babies, they promote social, emotional, and cognitive development by nurturing healthy relationships and creating opportunities for play, exploration, communication, and learning.

Interventions geared toward young children rarely involve the child alone and more typically engage the parent(s) or caregivers together with the infant or young children. Some of the evidence-based treatments that are available to treat a variety of disorders that occur in early childhood include:

  • Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP), which addresses symptoms of post-traumatic stress;
  • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), which focuses on changing parent-child interaction patterns; and
  • Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC), which helps parents provide nurturing care and helps children develop regulatory strategies.
  • Additionally, Early Head Start (EHS) supports the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development in economically disadvantaged young children. Untreated mental health problems can take root early and get worse over time, with potentially serious consequences for early learning, social competence, and lifelong health. By investing in early mental health treatment, it is possible to change the course for children, reduce the need for treatment later in life, and save time and money in the long-run.

To turn the tide on this trend and make effective treatments available to more families, we must ensure they are accessible and affordable. One such way is to ensure that state Medicaid programs and other health insurers will pay mental health clinicians for the types of services proven to work—not the case in many states—will allow thousands of children to progress on a sound developmental trajectory. This in turn will avoid costly health, special education, and even juvenile justice costs later in life. It is crucial that parents, professionals, policymakers and politicians come together and invest in young children’s mental health now—and reap the positive benefits for generations.