Young children and mental health

Young children and mental health

Can young children have mental health problems?

Up to 20% of children and adolescents live with a mental disorder, which may begin in early childhood. That’s a lot, but it’s important to note that Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (commonly known as ADD or ADHD) and behavioural disorders also fall into this category. Among other mental health problems that may affect children aged five and under are anxiety disorders, symptoms of depression and attachment disorder. What are the signs to look out for? Generally speaking, if the behaviour is overwhelming and persistent, this may indicate that something is wrong, says child psychiatrist Andrée-Anne Marcoux. “If you find yourself overwhelmed by your child’s emotions or behaviour, it’s best to seek professional help,” she says. This may be the case if, for example, your child is always sad, anxious or angry, often isolates himself, stops playing, barely sleeps, purposely hurts himself, has an intense fear of being away from you, is incapable of functioning in childcare because of his aggressiveness, and so forth.

Can parental separation affect a child’s mental health?

Scientific studies show that the separation or divorce of parents increases the symptoms of anxiety and depression in a child. Even if this increase is only slight, it indicates that separation is a source of stress and sadness for young children. “The more intense the conflict, the more harm it causes the child, who feels torn between his parents,” explains psychologist Nancy Verreault. To make the transition easier, it’s important to think about your child, to remain respectful towards the other parent and to work together. Even if you’re angry with your ex, remember your child still needs his other parent.

How do I explain to a child that his father or mother committed suicide?

It’s best not to hide the fact that it was a suicide from the child. “You can explain to the child that his father had a sickness in his head that made him very unhappy which meant he took a bad decision,” suggests Josée Lake, social worker with the suicide support network Ressource régionale suicide de Laval. In some cases, the child may believe that if he’d been nicer or put his toys away, his mom or dad wouldn’t have died. It’s important to make the child understand that he’s not responsible. The child may also not react much to the news of the death. “This is typical since the news is too much to take in,” says the social worker. “In the weeks that follow, it’s important to pay attention to the child and help him express what he’s feeling in his heart through words or drawings.”

How do I promote my child’s mental health?

“First and foremost, you need to take care of your own mental health, since it impacts that of your child,” says child psychiatrist Andrée-Anne Marcoux. “Next, you should focus on your child’s needs according to his age.” For example, during your baby’s first few months of life, he forms his attachment to you and builds his trust in you. It’s therefore important to quickly respond to his needs (to be comforted, fed, changed, etc.). It’s also essential, for healthy brain development, to give him affection, exchange smiles and play with him.

As he grows, you can teach him to recognize his emotions, to talk about what he’s feeling, to develop relationships with others and to ask for help. In order to help him develop healthy self-esteem, encourage his efforts, praise him on his achievements and show interest in what he does. And to make him feel safe, it’s important to set limits. But beware: this is not a magic recipe. Mental illnesses are complex and can appear regardless of how you raise and guide your child.

Where to seek help
If you are worried about your mental health or that of a loved one, contact your family doctor, a medical clinic, your local CLSC or your employee assistance program. Your situation will be assessed and you may receive certain treatment. If required, you will then be directed to a unit specialized in mental health. You can also call the Info-Social line at 811. A psychosocial specialist can answer your questions and direct you to other resources as needed. Support groups may also be helpful.
Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir Magazine, May-June 2016
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Dr. Lorraine Boucher, Consultant Psychiatrist, CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal