Providing loving care to young children helps them to be mentally healthy.
You may not have heard the term mental health used for children. However, children need to be both physically and mentally healthy.
Mental health is about being healthy. It is not about being unhealthy. Mental health refers to the emotional, social, and cognitive well-being of your child.
The brain begins to develop before a child is born. The brain continues to grow and develop throughout a person’s life. The early years are very important for the development of mental health.
A young child’s mental health gives the child the ability to:
- Form close and secure relationships with others
- Understand and manage their emotions
- Feel safe to learn and explore their environment
Early mental health impacts all areas of a child’s life, now and in the future.
Loving Care (0-2 year old)
Your baby depends on you to meet all of their needs. They need your loving care.
Learn your baby’s cues and respond in a loving, responsive way. When your baby gets their needs met, they are learning that you will provide a safe place for them to grow and explore the world. This special relationship is called attachment.
Here are some suggestions for providing loving care.
- Hold your baby skin to skin.
- Sing songs to your baby.
- Create routines when you feed and change them.
- Respond to your baby when they are upset.
- Enjoy spending time together with your baby.
- Make eye contact.
- Calm your baby when they cry.
- Give full attention to your baby without distractions like your phone.
- Cuddle, rock, and hold your baby as much as you can.
Your baby’s brain develops very quickly in their first few years. Positive experiences help your baby’s brain to grow in a healthy way that will help them throughout their life. Negative experiences can harm the way your baby’s brain develops. It is important that your baby has many more positive than negative experiences.
Loving Care (2-5 year old)
When you provide loving care to your child, you are helping them to be mentally healthy. They will develop skills that will help them to be healthy throughout their life. These skills will also help your child be ready to start school. The skills include:
- Making sense of and controlling her emotions
- Controlling impulses
- Understanding other people’s emotions and expressions
- Forming secure attachments to caregivers
- Actively exploring the environment
- Having a sense of curiosity
- Social skills
- The ability to communicate with others
- Coping with changes and new environments
- Understanding and accepting differences among people
Being mentally healthy can also help your child stay physically and mentally healthy now and throughout their life.
Attachment is the bond that your child will develop with you. Children of all ages can develop attachments to their caregivers.
Children can form more than one attachment. They form attachments with the caregivers they spend the most time with, such as a mom, grandma, or daycare provider. Children do not need to be related to adults to form an attachment to them.
Your child’s attachment to you and other caregivers can be either secure or insecure. It is important to help your child develop a secure attachment. Your child will form a secure attachment when you provide them with safe, loving, and consistent care.
Attachment meets your child’s needs for love, support, safety, acceptance, and security.
Because children can form attachments to more than one person, it is important that all caregivers understand attachment. All caregivers should also understand what they can do to help the children in their care develop a secure attachment to them.
Why is attachment important?
Secure attachment is important. It helps your child to trust that you will be there for them. When your child knows that they can return to you for comfort and safety, they can feel confident to explore their world and play. A secure attachment relationship and your support will also help your child learn to cope with change and stress.
Secure attachment relationships help children to increase their self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Attachment relationships teach children how to act in relationships and build resiliency skills. Attachment also influences the development of children’s brains.
Helping Your Child Form a Secure Attachment to You
Your child will develop a secure attachment to you because of the way you behave and respond to their needs. Here are some ways you can help your child develop a secure attachment.
- Respond sensitively to your child’s cues, e.g., when they are upset, want to play, or are hungry. Sometimes it is not easy to read children’s cues, e.g., a toddler may become angry when they are hungry. It takes time, but you will learn your child’s cues.
- Help your child to regulate their emotions by helping them calm down.
- Provide loving care.
- Comfort your child when they are upset.
- Provide close, safe physical touch, like cuddling or rocking.
- Adapt to your child’s needs. For example, if you are in a noisy environment that is upsetting your child, move to a quieter space.
- Keep your child safe.
- Teach your child appropriate behaviours.
- Let your child explore their environment.
- Let your child participate in child-led play. Share the fun of play with your child.
- You may not be able to respond immediately to your child’s needs all the time. This happens to every parent. Acknowledge to your child that this has happened and work to repair your relationship as soon as possible.
Baby Cues 0-2 years
|Cues||What is my Baby Saying?||Example|
|Eye contact, turning head and eyes towards you, reaching to you, raising eyebrows, following you around||I want attention.|
|Turning head away from you or an activity, arching back, crying, sneezing, yawning, pushing you away||I need a break from you or an activity.|
|Jerking arms and legs, rubbing eyes, yawning, not responding to you or the environment, crying, demanding attention||I am tired.|
|Making fists before and when starts feeding, rooting (turning face towards you when you touch their face), crying that starts softly and gradually increases in intensity||I am hungry.|
|Moving away from the food, bottle, or breast; arching back; pushing food away||I have eaten enough.|
|Arching back, crying, sharper sounds of pain of discomfort, pale/blue/or red skin||I am uncomfortable.|
|Smiling, cooing, gurgling||I am content.|
|Smiling, reaching||I recognize you.|
What Children Have to Say (All Ages)
You can help your child develop a secure attachment to you. This list can help you understand your baby’s attachment needs. It shows how your child feels and what they may need from you.
Birth to two months
- You can hold me as much as you want.
- You can’t spoil me.
- Crying is how I tell you that I need something. I don’t cry to make you angry.
- If you think you have taken care of all of my needs and I am still crying, hold me and comfort me.
- Smile at me, laugh, sing to me, rock me, dance with me gently, talk to me softly. This is how our relationship grows.
Two to seven months
- When I look at you, smile, coo, and reach up to you, I want you to respond to me.
- Crying is how to tell you that I need something. I don’t cry to make you angry.
- If I turn away, I need a break.
- When I am hurt, sick, or afraid, I need you to hold me right away.
Seven to twelve months
- I prefer to be with the few people who look after me the most. I am upset by people I don’t know.
- I get upset when you leave me. Hug and cuddle me when you leave and again when you come back; then I will learn that I am safe and secure.
- Play and talk with me face to face.
- Watch me play and follow my lead. If you always direct my play, I will stop trying.
- Think about what I need when I cry, smile, babble, or turn away.
One to two years old
- I am learning about my world. I like to explore, but when I am frightened, I need to come back to you for comfort. When I feel safe and comforted, I am ready to explore again.
- Even though I can do more things by myself, I still need love and affection.
Two to four years old
- When I want to do things on my own, let me try, as long as it is not dangerous.
- I still need you to keep me safe and comfort me when I am hurt, frightened, or sick.
Used with permission from McDonald, J. & Flynn, C. (2012). Mother’s Mental Health Toolkit. A Resource for the Community. Nova Scotia: IWK Centre.
Your Child’s Brain (0-5)
Your baby’s brain grows and changes a lot during early childhood (0-6 years).
By the time your child is four years old, their brain is already 90% of the size of an adult’s brain. The connections within your child’s brain also strengthen during this time. These connections help your child’s brain talk to different parts of the brain and the rest of their body.
Adults have an opportunity to influence brain development in good ways and in bad ways. There are many things that you can do to help your child’s brain grow and develop in a healthy way.
Your child’s brain communicates or “talks” both to itself and to other parts of his body. Neurons communicate with each other through electrical signals that pass from one neuron to another.
Connections are formed when the same neurons communicate over and over again. When neurons connect together, they form a neural network. Networks that are used a lot get strong. Networks that aren’t used much fade away.
Your child’s neural networks are formed and strengthened by the experiences they have. The more they do something, the stronger the neural network will become. For example, if your child and their father laugh together often, your child’s brain will become ‘wired’ to respond to laughter as a positive thing. Positive experiences help the brain to grow and develop in positive ways.
One of the most important experiences that your young child will have is the love and care that they receive from you. Be sure to provide warm and consistent care. Provide stimulating, repeated experiences to help build your child’s neural networks, such as listening to your heartbeat, rocking, and routines.
The Brain is Under Construction
Your child’s brain develops from the bottom up. The areas that develop first are the ones that help them to live, such as breathing and heartbeat. You can think of this as the foundation of a house (as shown in the picture below). It is important to have the areas of the brain that are needed for life and stability working first.
The image below shows how the functions of the brain develop. The areas of your child’s brain that help them survive work earlier than the areas that help them solve problems. In fact, the development of the highest area isn’t complete until they are around 25 years old.
Helping Your Child’s Brain Develop (All Levels)
- Love your child no matter what they do or say (unconditional love).
- Learn behaviours that will help your child to develop a secure attachment to you.
- Give your child a lot of safe, appropriate touch through cuddling, hugging, holding, feeding, and rocking.
- Respond to your child’s needs in a consistent and sensitive manner.
- Create routines for day-to-day activities, such as brushing your child’s teeth every night before bed.
- Provide consistent care so your child learns you will be there for them.
- Follow your baby’s cues regarding when to play and when to be calm.
- Provide new experiences and environments for your child to safely explore.
- Praise your child and be specific about what you are praising them for and why.
- Set boundaries and rules and reinforce them in a kind, calm, and respectful way.
- Encourage your child’s play.
- Speak to your child in a positive way.
- Use positive discipline.
- Provide opportunities for rhythmic listening and movement through music and dance.
- Use repetitive play, movement, sounds, phrases, and songs to help develop your child’s brain.
Resiliency (All Ages)
Resiliency is the ability to cope with stressful situations, changes, or problems. Children, who are resilient, use coping skills that they developed from past experiences to help them cope better with new situations.
Life is not stress free. All people experience stress, change, and problems in their lives. Children are not born knowing how to handle stress. You can help your young child learn skills to deal with stress. A child is never too young to start learning these skills.
Skills that Build Resiliency
Resiliency grows as you grow. Even as adults, we are still growing and learning skills that will help us to be more resilient. Teaching your child the following skills will help them build their resiliency.
Help your child to:
- express feelings
- name feelings
- recognize other people’s feelings
- take responsibility for own behaviour
- feel better in hard situations
- use problem-solving skills
- make decisions
Helping Your Child Build Resiliency Skills
There are lots of ways that you can help your child build their resiliency skills. Remember that you are your child’s best teacher. Children learn from watching and copying the adults in their lives.
- Show your child how to deal with stressful situations; lead by example.
- Show your child that you are confident, flexible, courageous, and optimistic.
- Talk about what you are doing and how you are feeling. This will help your child develop empathy.
- Encourage your child to learn words for their emotions.
- Teach your child how to calm themself when they are excited, hyper, scared, stressed, or upset.
- Encourage your child to safely explore their environment, try new things, and be independent.
- Reinforce rules in a calm and kind way.
- Give your child comfort and encouragement in stressful situations.
- Allow your child to develop close and safe relationships with other adults.
- Provide a safe and consistent home environment.
Helping Your Child Learn Empathy (All Ages)
Empathy means being able to understand another person’s feelings and situation. Empathy is an important social skill. Below is a list of ways that you can help your child learn empathy.
Model Empathy to Your Child
- Your child will learn how to be empathetic when you are empathetic to them.
- Point out when other people are being empathetic.
Help Strengthen Your Child’s Attachment to You
- Sensitively respond to your child’s cues. This helps them feel safe and loved.
- Comfort your child when they are upset.
- Respond to your child based on their needs, not based on your needs. For example, if you and your child are playing and your child is tired or not interested, allow your child to have a break from the activity.
- Allow your child to lead your play with them.
Help Your Child Understand Feelings
- Teach your child that all feelings are normal.
- Talk to your child about your feelings and what they feel like in your body, e.g., my shoulders get tight when I am mad.
- Look at pictures with your child and ask them what people are feeling in the pictures.
- Recognize your child’s feelings and talk to them about them.
Helping Your Child Learn to Try New Things (All Ages)
Taking advantage of new opportunities will help your child grow and learn. Trying new things takes courage, self-esteem, and encouragement. Your child needs to know that when they try something new they might fail and that’s okay. The important thing is never to stop trying.
Below is a list of ways that you can help your child learn that trying new things is a good thing.
Model Trying New Things to Your Child
- Try new things yourself. Talk about how you feel as you go through this experience. “I was really nervous about going to the book club last night but I met some really nice people. The book that I have to read is different than what I normally read but I’m going to read it anyway. Who knows, I might like it!”
Teach Your Child How to be Calm
- The key to trying new things is learning how to be calm and relax.
Help Your Child Attach to You
- Children who are securely attached will feel confident exploring their environment and taking risks.
- Provide a safe base that a child can come back to after they have tried new things.
Teach Your Child Patience
- Taking risks and trying new things takes patience.
- Click here to find out more information about helping your child learn to control their impulses.
Praise Your Child
- Praise your child for their effort, instead of for the outcome. For example, “You tried hard in swimming lessons today. You really paid attention to the teacher.”
- Praise your child for trying new things.
- Provide safe and healthy opportunities for your child to try new things.
- Step back and allow your child to take risks.
- Let your child learn how to succeed and fail.
- Break down new challenges into small steps. Celebrate the completion of each step.
- Encourage your child to be independent.
- Create a balance between taking hard challenges and easy ones.
- Let your child take breaks when they are feeling pushed beyond their comfort zone. After a break, they can try again.
Helping Your Child Calm Their Emotions (All Ages)
It is important that your child learns to understand, name, and be in charge of their emotions. This is called emotional regulation. The following is a list of ways you can help your child understand and manage their emotions.
Model for Your Child
- Teach your child that all emotions are normal. It is what you do with them that sometimes can be harmful.
- Stay calm in stressful situations.
- Talk to your child about your emotions and what they feel like.
Teach Your Child How to Take Big Breaths
- Breathing deeply helps calm a person down.
- Practice blowing bubbles using a straw and a mixture of dish soap and water.
- Laugh lots as a family. Laughing makes you breathe deeply.
- Have your child put their hand on their stomach and feel it move when they breathes.
- Elmo teaches children how to belly breathe to calm down.
- Watch this video with your child to help teach them to belly breathe.
- This video provides a guided imagery activity for children.
Touch and Cuddle Your Child
- One of the easiest ways to calm a child is to hug them. Cuddling with a safe person can also help a child feel safe.
- Supervised cuddling with a pet can also help calm a child.
Helping Your Child Learn to Be Optimistic (All Ages)
Optimism, or being hopeful and positive, is an important resiliency skill. Below is a list of ways that you can help your child learn to be optimistic.
Model Optimism for Your Child
- It is easier to be negative than positive. Challenge yourself to model optimism and positivity.
Helping Your Child Develop Self-Efficacy
- Self-efficacy is the belief that you can make a difference in your world. This belief can make you have a more positive view for the future.
- Encourage your child to express their ideas and opinions.
Help Children Look at Both the Positive and the Negative
- Have a discussion about your child’s favourite part of their day.
- Create environments that are filled with laughter, jokes, and encouragement.
- Encourage discussion about the future…short-term and long-term.
As a Family, Embrace Mistakes and Failure
- Encourage taking risks. When you take risks, sometimes you won’t succeed. Sometimes you will succeed.
- Encourage your child to learn from mistakes and failures.
- Encourage active play that includes problem-solving.
- Encourage your child to make connections between their behaviours and outcomes.
- Try not to direct criticism at your child, but instead at their behaviours.
Routine (All Ages)
Routine refers to things that you do regularly, like your child having a bath every night before they go to bed. Sometimes routines help children calm down, e.g., reading before bed. Sometimes routines teach responsibility, e.g., helping to take the garbage out.
For children, routines are important. They help your child to develop in a lot of different ways. Some of these ways are listed below.
Supporting brain development
Routines provide consistency and stimulation. These help your baby’s brain to grow and develop. Routines help your baby’s brain develop ways to communicate with the different parts of the body. Routines you create with your child also contribute to your child developing a secure attachment to you.
Secure attachment helps children cope with change and stress as they get older. Attachment also helps children learn how to trust.
Developing social skills
As young children grow, they come into contact with more and more people. Routines teach social skills such as communication, taking turns, sharing, learning to wait, and helping others.
Routines can be a buffer during stressful times. There are a number of routines that can help soothe children who are experiencing stress. These routines can also increase your child’s feelings of safety.
- Having a soothing, quiet place to have a nap.
- Having a massage.
- Reading a book
- Singing a lullaby
- Going for a walk
- Rhythmic bouncing and rocking
- Having a warm bath
Practicing these routines regularly helps your child relate the routine to safety.
Developing impulse control
Routines can be helpful for teaching children to stop and wait (impulse control). For example, when you teach your child that they have to clean up their toys before they have a snack, it teaches them that the snack will come in a few minutes after they have cleaned up.
Routines comfort children. Children are more likely to remain calm and cooperative if they know what comes next. For example, reading to your child every day when you get home from work.
Coping with change
There will be times when routines are disrupted, e.g., during a trip to a relative’s house. To help children cope with these changes, it is important to plan ahead to create feelings of “sameness”. Some examples are:
- Keeping routines around mealtimes and bedtime
- Bringing a familiar bib, spoon, or bowl for eating
- Going through the same morning routine
- Planning your travel around important times, such as mealtime and nap time
- Having a backpack for your child for their special items
Even though routines are important, it is important to recognize that sometimes there will be a need for flexibility. Remember that routines do not have to be on a strict timetable. However, as a schedule provides safety and a knowledge of “what’s next”, it is important to fit routines into changed schedules if possible.
Stress (All Ages)
As a parent, it is your role to protect your child from stress. However, you will never be able to keep your child’s life completely stress-free. In fact, that is not in the best interest of your child.
Many people do not believe that babies or young children experience stress and trauma. This is not true. For example, your child will experience stress any time something is new or different.
Experiencing stress is not always a bad thing. When a child is supported, experiencing stress can help them to learn resiliency skills. Resiliency skills are tools your child can use to help cope with stress in the future.
Everyone experiences stress throughout their lives. Developing resiliency skills will benefit your child throughout life.
What happens to your child’s body when they experiences stress?
The human stress response system is instinctual. This means that the stress response is not under our control. It exists to keep us safe.
Children experience stress when an experience is new, unpredictable, threatening, or uncontrollable. In other words, children feel stress when things feel NUTS.
Your child will react to stress the same way adults do. Their brain and body will get ready to survive the stressful experience. For example, your child’s body will release adrenaline to their muscles. This chemical will give their muscles the extra energy that might be needed to protect them. There are also other chemicals that are released into their body.
How do I know if my child is reacting to stress?
Sometimes it is hard to tell if your child is experiencing stress. One common response to stress in young children is freezing. Freezing means that your child may have no facial expression, may be slow in reacting or following your instructions, or seem like they are not “really there”.
Whether your child reacts to stress by screaming and crying, or by freezing, the response of their brain and body is the same.
When a child is not supported in times of stress, it can affect their health. For example, they may begin to have nightmares or night terrors. They may have physical complaints (e.g., tummy aches). They may also seem to be “super aware” of everything that goes on around them (hypervigilance). Behavioural problems, such as impulsivity, tantrums, aggressiveness, frequent crying, and fussiness, are also common.
Stress can also affect your child later in their life. It can cause physical illness, mental illness, problems in the growth and formation of the brain and organs, and impacts on the child’s ability to learn. This happens only when children are not supported when stress happens or when they experience long-term stress, for example, ongoing abuse.
Helping Your Child Cope with Stress
As a caregiver, you are the best person to help your child cope with stress. Your relationship with your child is very important.
- Teach your child how to soothe themself, e.g., deep breathing, blowing bubbles, laughing, and playing drums.
- Help your child get rid of their stress, e.g., dance with them, laugh, talk, or go for a walk.
- Try to be consistent and maintain or re-establish routines during and after stress.
- Get support for yourself so you can deal with the effects stress has on you. This will help you to support your child.
- If a situation is stressful, take your child away from it. Stay with them and help them calm down.
- Talk to your child. Ask them about their day. Let them know that they can talk to you about anything.
- Have dedicated special time with your child. Even in stressful periods, this is something they can look forward to.
- Build on your child’s strengths.
- Help them make positive goals and work towards them.
Temperament (All Ages)
Temperament is the way that your child reacts to the world around them. Temperament is something you are born with, not something that develops.
The areas impacted by temperament include:
- Activity level
- How active and energetic is your child?
- How many positive feelings does your child show?
- Can your child stay focused on one thing?
- Is your child able to stop themself from doing something that is not allowed? Does your child put effort into things they do?
- How stressed does your child become when change happens?
- Expression of anger and frustration
- How much emotion does your child show when they don’t get their way or are challenged?
- Recovery time
- When you change activities or settings, how long does your child take to calm themself? Can they get involved with the new activity immediately or does it take time?
You and your child might have different temperaments. If you and your child have different temperaments, this can impact your relationship with your child.
Take some time to figure out how your child reacts to their day. Do what you can to make days easier for both of you.
For example, you may be a person who needs a set routine in the morning in order to get out the door and face the day. Your child, on the other hand, may like to play, laugh, and take their time in the morning.
One way to cope with this difference is to make the morning routine fun. For example, you can sing songs while you both get dressed or make teeth brushing a game.
Another way to cope with this difference is to do as much the night before as you can. For example, you can shower the night before, set your coffee to be made when you wake up, or lay out clothes before bedtime.
You and Your Child’s Temperament (All Ages)
This chart will help you to figure out you and your child’s temperaments. Remember that temperament is the natural way that you and your child relate to the world. There are no right or wrong answers. This exercise will help you understand your child better.
Definitions you’ll need to know
- Activity level
- How active and energetic is your child?
- How many positive feelings does your child express?
- Attention/focusing ability
- Can your child stay focused on one activity for a period of time that is appropriate for their age?
- Effortful control
- Is your child able to wait? Can your child regulate their emotions while waiting? Is your child able to stop themself from doing something that is not allowed? Does your child put effort into tasks?
- How distressed and anxious does your child become when change happens? How distressed and anxious does your child become when they are stimulated?
- Expression of anger and frustration
- How much emotion does your child show when they don’t get their way or are challenged?
- Recovery time
- During transitions, how long does it take your child to calm themself and engage in the environment? If something negative happens, how long does it take your child to calm themself and engage in the environment?
Follow Up Questions
Think of your relationship with your child.
After you have completed the chart above, please follow up with the questions below.
- Were there any surprises when you filled out the chart?
- What are some of the ways your temperament areas are similar to your child?
- What are some of the ways your temperament areas are different from your child?
- What can be some of the positive and negative consequences of having similarities?
- What can be some of the positive and negative consequences of having differences?
- How can knowing some of the ways your child’s temperament differs from you affect the way that you care for your child?
Adapted from Lubimiv, G. (2005). Parent/Child Temperament and Goodness of Fit Chart. Retrieved from Parent/Child Temperament and Goodness of Fit Chart.
Being self-confident means that you trust in your own abilities and qualities.
Having a healthy self-esteem means that you believe in yourself and your worth.
Self-efficacy is the belief that you have the ability to achieve your goals.
Being able to regulate your emotions means that you can:
- Control how intense your emotions feel
- Calm yourself
- Express emotions appropriately
When parents or other caregivers do not provide consistent, safe, and loving care, their children will develop insecure attachments to them.
An insecurely attached child:
- is anxious about whether their parents will be available to provide care and protection when needed
- learns ways of behaving that keep their caregiver close and available to them; this behaviour (e.g., acting out or clinging) often does not work in other relationships
Unconditional love means that you will always love your child and be there for them. Unconditional love does not mean that you will always like your child’s behaviours. You are human. Sometimes your child will make you mad, frustrated, and confused.
To cope with something means that you are handling a difficult situation the best that you can.
Being flexible means that you make changes to your plans and thoughts based on whatever is happening around you.
Courageous is another word for brave. Being courageous also means that you are brave enough to admit when you are scared or unsure.
Use the one from the child abuse section.
An impulse is something that you have an urge to do, like eating another cookie. Sometimes impulses are about doing something good; more often they are about doing something that is unacceptable or bad for you. Impulse control is taking a step back and stopping yourself from acting on your impulse. This gives you time to think about what you are about to do and decide if it is a good idea or not.
Links to Further Information
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