Child Mental Health

Some people find it hard to believe that little children or even BABIES (!) could have poor mental health. Others believe that most mental health problems start very early, right back in infancy. This is when secure safe relationships with adult caregivers set the child up for life. Sometimes glimpses of future mental health problems can be seen in little children. Sometimes they are glaring.


Premmies are at added risk of poor mental health. This is another area that parents can be aware of and try to be the best parents they can be for their premmie.

Raising Emotionally Healthy Children

 Raising Emotionally intelligent (Healthy) Children

Emotional awareness and the ability to handle strong emotions will have a huge influence on happiness and success in all areas, including relationships.


Premature babies’ very difficult start to life may have affected how the emotional area of the brain (the limbic system) developed during those weeks in hospital.Perhaps even more than babies who were born at term, parents of preterm babies need to be aware of their child’s feelings, to empathize, soothe and teach them about feelings. They need to learn to control impulses, be able to delay rewards, motivate themselves, read other people’s cues and generally cope with the normal ups and downs of life.


Some people guide their children’s understanding of emotions (their own and those of others) and some don’t. The "guiders" teach strategies to handle ups and downs, do not object to anger, sadness or fear, but rather accept negative emotions as normal and use these times to teach understanding.


John Gottman in his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, and based on years of research found that parents who are good at this do the following:


Be    1.  Become aware of their child’s emotions. Children, like the rest of us, have reasons for their negative emotions, and they are often unable to name them or even identify why they feel “bad”. If they are acting “out” or “in” try to think yourself into what is happening for them and give voice to several possibilities.

Three-year-old Jess had just arrived home from a sleep-over at her Grandparents. Almost immediately her mother left to buy some food. Jess had a tantrum which was not immediately understood by the adults present and she was in trouble. Finally her grandmother sat beside her and asked if she was disappointed that her mother had left so soon, because she was looking forward to seeing her. That was it, and having her problem identified and her feelings validated, Jess was almost immediately OK and able to play with her sister. She was learning to do these things, but the emotions that followed her mother leaving overwhelmed her emotions to the point where she could not do articulate her problem.


2.       2.   Recognize that negative emotions in the child is a time for getting close to and teaching the child

No matter what constitutes your child’s crisis, or what age they are, negative experiences provide wonderful opportunities for parents to empathise, to build close relationships and to teach them ways of handling adversity. Anger does not have to be viewed as a challenge to your authority. Ignoring negative feelings rarely make them disappear, while talking, labelling and being understood, helps them dissipate. This is always best practised when the crises are small and the emotion is of lower intensity. Your child then learns that you are his/her ally, a good sounding board who will help them problem-solve, and hopefully they will come to you when the bigger crises occur.


Li    3.  Listen to their child’s story with empathy and validate their child’s feelings

Empathetic listening is more than hearing the facts. It involves using your eyes and ears to identify underlying emotions (body language, facial expressions, gestures), standing in your child’s shoes and seeing the situation from their perspective, reflecting back what you perceive to be their emotions in a non-critical way, and trying to feel what the child is feeling. All this requires your focussed, undivided attention


***    4. Help the child find the right words to label the emotion they are feeling. A child might only be able to convey a “bad” feeling.Parents can refine this by suggesting others such as “angry”, “sad”, ”afraid”, “tense”, “worried”, “jealous”.

5.    Set limits while working out strategies to solve the problem their child is facing. In problem solving, that follows identifying the problem, children need to learn that some possibilities are not appropriate. The child may be angry with another child, but a solution is not to hit back. The problem is not the strong negative feelings of the child but their inappropriate behaviours.


Self-regulation and mental health

The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system signals increased functions in heart rate and breathing when a person feels stressed. The parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system acts as a regulator, stopping this acceleration and the the sympathetic functions from speeding out of control. The vagus nerve originates in the brain signals the braking or slowing down of the heart rate, respiration and digestion. People with high vagal tone are able to bring the speeded-up systems back into control, and all of this is done without  being conscious of the process. They are well able to recover from emotional stress within a reasonable time period and not be continuously overwhelmed by their internal stress reactions. There is some inheritance in this ability, but evidence shows that parents who model calm, rational approaches to stressful emotions, and who also teach their children the nuts and bolts of these skills, have children with high vagal tone.


Ref: Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child.Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York



Why premmies need their parents to be emotionally OK

Children born very preterm (<32 weeks of gestation) are more likely to internalize problems, have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other behavioural problems. They are also more likely to feel sad, to become depressed in adolescence and to have problems regulating emotions, leading to poor social skills and relationships. These problems start to emerge as young as 2 years of age, which is concerning because early social/emotional problems are associated with later behavioural and psychiatric ones. At 2 years of age, preterm infants’ dysregulation has been found to be associated with the mother’s own mental health problems. Preterm children whose mothers had mental health issues were 2 ½ times more likely to be classified as “dysregulated”.  Babies born preterm are known to be less “readable” and more difficult to satisfy than fullterm babies and it may be that these characteristics affect the mothers’ ability to parent and to feel anxious and depressed. Therefore mothers may need help to understand and to sensitively parent their premature baby, to overcome and seek treatment for her own mental health problems, in order to help her prematurely-born child become self-regulated.


Ref:Treyvaud, K. Et al., (2009). Parental mental health and early social-emotional development of children born very preterm. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 35(7), 768-777.