Mental Health, Ages 0-5

Early childhood mental health means your child’s healthy emotional and social development, according to the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. As babies and children grow, abilities to form secure relationships, explore environments, and express emotions in a healthy way develop, which impacts their future behavior and relationships. What does typical emotional and social development look like in the first five years? And how can you help your child develop good mental health?

Ages 0 – 1: From birth, infants gaze at caregivers and bond with them. Hold your newborn skin-to-skin; and be sure to speak and sing to him often. By 4 months, most babies smile, respond to people and may even try to copy others’ expressions. Encourage your baby by smiling and playing “funny faces,” looking in a mirror together, and reading to him. By 6 to 9 months, most babies recognize familiar faces. They love playing with their parents and may become clingy around strangers. If you need to leave, offer calm reassurance that you will return. This will help her feel loved and secure. By age 1, most babies respond to others’ emotions, have a favorite toy or activity and seek attention through sounds or actions. Help your 1-year-old’s skills by playing “peek-a-boo,” and back-and-forth sharing games. Positively responding, such as reading a favorite book when she hands it to you, helps her know she matters.

Ages 1 – 3: By 18 months, most children express a range of emotions, and may begin to have temper tantrums. Empathize and validate feelings and teach your child words to help express herself: “I know you feel mad because you can’t have any more cookies.” Teach better ways to respond to angry feelings, such as taking a deep breath and using words. Your child’s tantrums can be stressful for you, too: After acknowledging feelings, step away for a moment, letting your child know he can come to you when he is ready. This gives you both a chance to calm down, teaches her it is okay to express strong feelings, and shows you are available if she needs you. At 2 to 3, most children also show affection and concern for other people in and outside of the family, play simple pretend games, and begin to enjoy playing with other children. (At 3, begin to set up short, supervised play dates—a couple of hours or less—to encourage your child’s socialization and connect with other parents yourself.) Build self-esteem by praising specific, desired behavior like following instructions, being cooperative, and expressing feelings with words when upset.

Ages 4 – 5: At ages 4 and 5, most children can talk about what they like (and don’t), enjoy trying new things, can play cooperatively, may imitate and/or want to be like friends and can follow rules. Play dates or get-togethers with other families continue to build social and emotional skills and prepares him for being positive and open to new relationships as he enters kindergarten, which helps him succeed. Preschoolers are both cooperative and defiant at home; offer choices and praise mastery of tasks and exercising increasing self-control. Help him manage behavior by setting clear, consistent boundaries and rules and stating your expectations of him. Give hugs!

If you have concerns…

Like other illnesses, mental illness may be prevented or helped with early care and intervention. If your child has lost skills she once had, or you think there could be problems with how she behaves with caregivers or other children, talk to her doctor.

Did you know?

Studies have found that being attuned to your child from the start by touching, holding, gazing, and playing with him or her is key to a child’s stronger self-esteem and healthier relationships later. Studies show that babies who have secure emotional attachments also do better in school.

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