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The Importance of Mental Health in Early Childhood

We hear a lot about the importance of mental health in adults and teenage children, but what do we really know about mental health in the early years and how this affects child development? We spoke with Natalie Satur, Integrative Counsellor & Psychotherapist, to find out how vital it is to promote good mental health and wellbeing in early years.

The childhood brain develops more in the first 5 years of life than at any other point in your lifetime. When a baby is born, the brain is 1/4 size of the adult brain and doubles in size in the first 12 months. It is about 80% of the size of an adult brain by the age of 3 and 90% by the age of 5.  Science is increasingly showing that the early childhood years are some of the most important years in laying down good foundations for the teenage and adult years. A baby is born with all of the neurons they need in life but a lot of the important connections that will help the child to develop into a happy and thriving teenager and adult are formed in the first 5 years of life. Skills that are developed in these years: motivation, self-regulation, problem solving & communication. ( taken from  January 2021)

If we can develop good Mental Health within our young children, we will be helping them to form important neurological connections and develop important life skills which will set them up for a good start in life, particularly in school.

During the recent Covid-19 pandemic, I think it’s fair to say that in one way or another we have all experienced times in which our mental health has been put under huge levels of pressure and stress. Whilst they may not be able to tell us, this is true of our children as well. The question is how do we help our children and families to cope in these uncertain times? Here are some of my tips, which you may find helpful as you and your family continue to journey through Lockdown.

  1. Routine.

Our brain is like every other organ of the body in that it operates in a rhythmic way. Imagine your brain is like a climbing wall and each part of our day is a “hold” on that wall. Without perhaps realising it, in normal life we move from hold to hold and this familiarity gives us the ability to move through our days with a general sense of rhythm and routine. In lockdown, so many of the “holds” that we relied upon i.e. work, school, being able to leave the house whenever we need to, are completely stripped away. This is also true for our children- so much of their normal routine disappears & this can make them feel lost, confused and out of sorts.

In lockdown, it’s important that we create our own family “holds”. These can be as simple as setting a new daily routine with set times for meals, getting dressed, going to bed etc. I believe it’s also important to have some separation between week days & weekends as well as acknowledging the monthly “holds” that we can rely upon i.e. birthdays,  zoom celebrations, the change in the seasons. These things will keep us looking forward and will help to keep our eyes fixed ahead of us in this trying time.

  1. Self-Regulation.

One of the key skills that children learn within the first 5 years is the ability to self-regulate. This helps them to deal with any change or difficulties they experience in life. In young infants, self-regulation comes in the form of cuddles, eye contact, feeding and feeling close to their care givers. In later years, children begin to develop their own mechanisms of self-regulation i.e. taking themselves off to a quiet place, cuddling a favourite toy, calming down with TV.

When big change occurs (like Lockdown), children may become emotionally overwhelmed and this can manifest in behaviours such as tantrums, becoming more withdrawn or going backwards in skills such as toileting, feeding and sleeping. In these times, whilst it may be hard for us as parents, it’s important to recognise that just as we adults sometimes need to revert back to our comfortable patterns of self-regulation, our children may also need to do the same for a time. This may look like lots more cuddles, more 1-2-1 time at meals or toileting and perhaps more soothing at bedtime, a time when for so many of us our daily thoughts catch up with us. As a Mum, I have noticed that my son goes through phases of needing his favourite toy a lot more, there are days when he needs lots of cuddles, he may decide he wants more help in areas where he was so independent (i.e. getting dressed), or he will want to hold my hand whilst he’s eating. It’s often just for a short time but when children communicate in this way, I wonder if what they’re really trying to say is ” Today I feel worried/confused, stay close until I feel a bit better Mum/Dad”

  1. Conversation.

As children begin to learn to talk, they will also begin to learn how to communicate their feelings. Just as they learn physical skills by watching and copying, children will also learn to communicate their feelings in a similar way. As a parent, don’t be afraid to talk to your child about how you might be feeling (in an age appropriate way) i.e. “I’m sorry Mum got cross, she’s feeling a bit sad today” or “Shall we sit and watch some TV together? Mummy is quite tired and just needs to rest a little bit”. Also, don’t be afraid to also ask your child how they might be feeling. The answer may make no sense at this stage but it’s never too early to start these conversations. By sharing with your child, you’re encouraging a 2 way conversation and you’re also helping to normalise & give words to some of the feelings they too may be experiencing.

Why not try to find creative forms of communication? Perhaps if your child can’t name a feeling, ask them “What colour are you feeling today? Is that colour happy or sad?” or perhaps ask them to draw how they’re feeling. The conversation or picture may not make any sense to us but we will be equipping our children with different ways to express their thoughts & feelings

  1. Be kind to yourself!

As adults, this is a hugely trying time. Add in the job of being a parent and at times, its utterly exhausting & overwhelming! Why not take the time to ask yourself,  what routine do I have to help me through this lockdown? What things help me to regulate? Who do I have that I can share my feelings with?

I would encourage you to try and have regular “me” time, even it’s just 10 minutes at the end of every day. It goes without saying that when we nurture healthy habits within ourselves, we will find that we’re in a much better place to also help our children.

As a family, why not try to celebrate small milestones, even if its a “we’ve survived the week” take away? We’ve definitely had a few of those! We also had the joy of baking and eating a special cake to celebrate the news that “Big Grandpa” had received his COVID vaccination.

We will get through this but there is no shame in saying that it will come with highs and many lows and we will all need help along the way, our children included.

Natalie Satur, MBACP

Integrative Counsellor & Psychotherapist

January 2021

Being at a nursery setting led by early years educators, children’s mental health is supported in so many ways during this crucial development milestone. We positively encourage strong attachments, friendships and opportunities for children to feel secure, loved and cared for in a familiar environment.