Child Development 101: Young Children Can Suffer from Mental Illness
However, infants and toddlers are unlikely to receive treatment, which can lead to life-long developmental problems, according to the research published in the February issue of American Psychologist as part of a special section that looked at how infants develop mental health problems and recommended improvements in diagnostic criteria.
One barrier to mental health care for young children is "the pervasive, but mistaken, impression that young children do not develop mental health problems and are immune to the effects of early adversity and trauma because they are inherently resilient and ‘grow out of' behavioral problems and emotional difficulties," according to researchers Joy D. Osofsky of Louisiana State University and Alicia F. Lieberman of the University of California, San Francisco.
While trauma can be a key factor in developing mental health issues, the authors encouraged more study of the impact of everyday life and interactions between infants and parents or other caregivers. Apparent sadness, anger, withdrawal and disengagement can occur "when infants have difficulty gaining meaning in the context of relationships," they said.
Mental health risks are magnified when young children "suffer disproportionately high rates of maltreatment with long-term consequences for mental and physical health, and pediatric health and child care providers seldom identify or refer children under 5 years old to mental health services," according to the researchers.
Their research also examines the impact of poverty and points out that previous studies revealed that "one in five children in poverty has a diagnosable mental health disorder."
Because early childhood mental health has very few practitioners, it is often difficult for parents or children's programs to find help when they think it is needed, according to researchers.
Among the researchers' recommendations:
- Expand early screening for infants and toddlers to detect mental health issues, such as relationship disorders, depression and selfregulation problems.
- Train professionals in mental health, pediatrics, early childhood education, child welfare and other related professions to recognize risk factors.
- Integrate infant mental health consultations into programs for parents, child care, early education, well-child health services and home-based services.
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