Mental health begins in infancy, child development experts tell parents

10 minutes of daily play can be more beneficial than hours of planned family time every couple of months

Advice For supporting, kids' mental health.According to the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 42% of students feel hopeless or persistently sad. .One-third of students said they experienced poor mental health.'Newsweek' reports that parents should look for a number of alarming trends and symptoms that have emerged among young people following the pandemic.Newsweek reported parents should look for alarming trends and symptoms that have emerged among young people following the pandemic.Those symptoms include hearing voices, sleeplessness, reduced appetite, self-harm and aggressiveness.Regular screenings can help identify mental health issues early and allow for proactive intervention.It is crucial to stay calm, empathetic and take action if children show signs of mental distress or anxiety.Mental health professionals can provide coping mechanisms and methods to manage anxiety

CHICAGO — Did you know babies can get depressed?

Andria Goss, associate vice president of clinical and community services at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for social work, early childhood education and child development programs, said people are astonished when they learn and appreciate that fact.

“Babies experience everything as a bodily feeling: If a parent is stressed, depressed and/or anxious, the baby is picking up on that,” she said. “Imagine a mom who has her own stresses and sometimes she’s able to focus on her baby and other times there’s an interaction, she’s angry, or not attuned to the baby, not doing the stuff that engages the baby. They have this on-off, on-off repeatedly. The baby doesn’t know what to do with that because the baby is working hard to get smiles, elicit cooing, and it’s not happening. At a certain point, with all those failed attempts, the baby stops trying … and withdraws.”

Although that’s an extreme example, Goss said, it illustrates how babies pick up stressors from their environment and don’t know what to do with them. When such interactions become chronic, that can create challenges in the parent-child relationship.

The Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families offers in-person and online mental health services to kids as young as newborns and their families in and around Chicago, and has been doing so for decades.

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 U.S. children ages 2-8 have a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder, and, among that group, boys are more likely than girls to have such a disorder.

“What we do at the Center for Children and Families is more a preventive measure,” Goss said. “The expectation is that babies are going to assimilate into my life. But that’s not their job. That’s our job (as adults and parents).”

When families and schools identify something may not be working for a child, they get in touch with CCF, whose focus is relationship-based therapy. The center tries to connect the dots when there is a disconnect and a child is unable to regulate emotions and less able to explore and learn.

“When we’re looking at mental health and psychiatric difficulties, it’s a nature-nurture situation — we call it a vulnerability stress model,” said Sally Weinstein, licensed clinical psychologist and associate director at the University of Illinois Center on Depression and Resilience. “We all are born into this world with some biological vulnerabilities that we inherit. And these may interact with our environment in ways that are either protective for our development, or may be harmful for our development. It is that combination that affects development, even of young kids.”

The goal of therapy is to strengthen attunement — a person’s ability to be aware of and respond to a child’s needs — to strengthen the child’s and caregiver’s capacities, their relationship, and how a caregiver is able to experience and parent the child.

“What you want for your baby, being attuned to where your baby is and what he/she needs? We’re unpacking those types of things,” Goss said.

CCF gets to the heart of that through play. Licensed clinical social worker and CCF director Sara Phou said the bulk of the families they serve have children ages 3-6 who get 18 months of therapy. The center connects caregivers with therapists to glean the challenges in the caregiver-child relationship prior to the child being brought in. When the child comes to a CCF location, therapists observe the child playing with their caregiver as a clinician takes note of how play is unfolding, the themes, the feelings involved.

“(Children) use play to develop, to understand the world, but also as a way to help share how they’re thinking and feeling,” Phou said.

If, for instance, a child plays with cars and races through a city kno

cking down blocks featuring a good guy and a bad guy, the child may be trying to make sense of good and bad in the world. “We can join them in their play, and help the car be regulated,” Phou said. “Using play as an extension of themselves and working through it there might provide a port of entry, a way for them to internalize it.”

Every behavior is a communication, Goss said. “We try to pull insight into what the kid is struggling with,” she added. “We want to evaluate cognitive skills, motor skills, social and emotional skills … it’s not a one size fits all.”

Engaging in therapy aids caregivers in regulating themselves so they can help regulate their child. And caregivers and parents feel more confident in understanding what’s happening with their child. Once family units feel empowered, parents can feel a sense of efficacy, and feel like whatever happens, they can deal with it.

“Play is so important for development. … It’s that power of connection for the little one around who they are, you want to connect with them around something that is of value to them,” Phou said. “There’s research around 10 minutes a day: If you follow your child’s lead and play with them for 10 minutes a day, that is all they need to build that connection. … That is going to be a huge protective factor for their mental health.”

Weinstein agrees that the short amount of time can help children build trust with parents and help parents build confidence and competence. Phou said 10 minutes of daily play can be more beneficial than hours of planned family time every couple of months.

“Finding moments where there’s joy and delight, in who they are, and it feels good for both of you, is going to help the relationship and help that connection,” Phou said.

For first-time parents, who may face sleep deprivation, burnout or a lack of feeling effective, Weinstein said their mental health is key. She suggests parents consider getting support by talking with other new parents or with their pediatrician. Since parents are the experts on their children, they are also the first line of defense when it comes to intervention.

“There are no hard and fast rules, even if a teacher says I see your child is struggling, that is not a reason to panic, but always a reason to seek out and gain support and more understanding about ways you could help your child,” Weinstein said.