Guide to Early Childhood Mental Health for Parents and Teachers

Mental health issues can begin in early childhood, often defined as children aged zero to eight years old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, approximately 7.4 percent of children aged three to 17 years have a diagnosed behavior problem.

Behavior problems aren’t the only symptoms of early childhood mental health disorders. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, affects approximately 9.4 percent of children between the ages of two and 17, according to the CDC. Diagnosed anxiety is another common issue, with an estimated 7.1 percent of children aged three to 17 years experiencing it.

In some cases, these conditions occur together. For example, about 38 percent of children with anxiety also experience behavior disorders.

Teachers and parents need to be aware of the broad range of disorders, their symptoms, and the varying factors that contribute to mental health disorders in U.S. children. Explore ways to identify warning signs and find helpful resources to connect your child or students with qualified professionals in your area.

Nearly half of mental illness cases that last a lifetime start before the age of 14. Parents and teachers are at the front line of mental health prevention. As an important person who spends a considerable amount of time with one or more young children, you have the opportunity to notice warning signs and causes before many other individuals. Find out how you can help identify possible emotional issues and improve a child’s likelihood of recovering from a serious mental health experience.

Types of Early Childhood Mental Health Problems

Some childhood mental health disorders share features with related adult challenges. Others display themselves in very different ways. An early childhood mental health disorder is defined by the CDC as a serious change in the way a child behaves, learns, or handles emotions. These changes typically result in distress and difficulties accomplishing daily tasks in order to be defined as a disorder.

While there are many challenges that children in early childhood can face, here are the most common types:

Anxiety Disorders

Fears and worries that interfere with play, school activities, or home life may be considered an anxiety disorder. For young children, these fears can include separation from parents, anxiety around other people, and general anxiety about the future.

It’s important to remember that these fears and concerns are normal for children under eight to occasionally feel. The inability to cope with them and continue in daily activities can result in a serious issue.

ADHD

ADHD is a common early childhood mental health disorder. This issue can’t be cured, but it can be managed in a healthy way with the right interventions. This neurodevelopmental disorder is most commonly diagnosed in childhood, according to the CDC.

Typical symptoms of ADHD include forgetting things, excessive daydreaming or talking, squirming, and difficulties concentrating or getting along with others. ADHD is organized into three different types, depending on the specific symptoms and challenges of the individual:

  1. Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation
  2. Predominantly Inattentive Presentation
  3. Combined Presentation

Conduct Disorder

According to the CDC, conduct disorder is a mental health disorder that presents itself as an ongoing pattern of serious violations of rules, aggression, and violations of social norms. These violations can be at home, at school, or among friends.

A related behavior and conduct issue is oppositional defiant disorder. This disorder typically presents itself in children younger than eight years old. It includes aggressive and defiant behaviors, such as losing one’s temper, acting spitefully, blaming others, and refusing to comply with rules.

Depression

Clinical depression has been observed in infants and young children as early as the 1940s, according to the Handbook of Infant Mental Health. Many of the signs and symptoms of depression in young children are similar to those in older children and adults, such as feelings of hopelessness, changes in eating patterns, and changes in energy levels.

Unfortunately, even young children show signs of feeling worthless or guilty. They may also exhibit self-destructive behaviors, such as the wish to harm themselves.

Neurodevelopmental Disabilities

According to Children’s National, neurodevelopmental disabilities include a range of disorders that can affect a child in various ways. These disabilities are often divided into separate categories:

  • Common nervous system conditions, such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy
  • Cognitive developmental disabilities, such as learning disabilities, autism, and intellectual disabilities
  • Nerve and muscle disorders, such as muscular dystrophy and neuropathies
  • Metabolic and genetic conditions, such as Fragile X, Trisomy 21, and mitochondrial diseases

Causes of Early Childhood Mental Health Issues

Some early childhood mental health issues seem to appear out of nowhere. There are, however, risk factors that may point to particular causes when it comes to these and other early childhood issues. Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, you may have difficulties identifying the root causes of childhood depression, anxiety, defiance, or ADHD challenges.

While most cases make it difficult to point to a single, definite cause, there are many known factors that may be involved in a particular early childhood situation. Understanding these factors may be the first step in preventing mental health disorders or connecting children with essential treatment options. According to MedlinePlus, here are a few of the most common causes of early childhood disorders:

  • Biology: Abnormalities in the thinking, emotional control, behavior, and perception regions of the brain have been linked to mental disorders in early childhood through adulthood. These abnormalities could occur from an injury or be present from birth.
  • Trauma: Many disorders, such as anxiety and depression, can be triggered by physical, psychological, or emotional trauma. Traumatic experiences in early childhood could include a death in the family, neglect, loss of a parent, or sexual abuse.
  • Environmental stress: Toxic stress can have an enduring effect on brain development, according to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. Environmental stress can come from school, home, or social situations.
  • Heredity: There is a link between genetics and mental disorders. A parent, grandparent, or sibling with a mental health issue can be a warning sign that a child may develop a similar mental health challenge.

Because the exact causes are typically unknown, many healthcare professionals refer to risk factors related to individual disorders or mental disorders in general. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it’s important to understand both internalizing and externalizing symptoms to identify important risk factors in early childhood.

Symptoms of Early Childhood Mental Health

The National Institute of Mental Health offers symptoms of early childhood mental health disorders. These symptoms are meant to help you understand the differences between daily challenges and serious mental health issues. This isn’t a complete list but covers some of the more frequent and concerning symptoms a child may exhibit.

Don’t wait to reach out if you notice and are concerned about one or more of these symptoms. As a parent or teacher, reviewing these symptoms can help you uncover early warning signs that a young child you know may be dealing with a mental health challenge:

  • Interacting with others: A child who struggles to interact with other children or with adults may need assistance. This symptom is particularly associated with autism spectrum disorder, depression, and conduct disorder. These struggles may also include emotional imbalances, such as extreme irritability, anxiety, or rapid mood changes.
  • Learning difficulties: According to Understood.org, one in five U.S. children have a learning and thinking difficulty. These differences can become challenges if children aren’t given the tools, strategies, and support they need to thrive.
  • Speaking challenges: The inability to speak or difficulties speaking can be a symptom. According to KidsHealth, a child should be able to imitate sounds by 18 months old. A child should follow simple directions, use oral language, and produce words or phrases spontaneously by two years old. If there are no other developmental or physical explanations for the delay, then it could be a symptom of a mental health issue.
  • Acting out: Pre-K students are expelled three times as often as K-12 students, according to First Things First. Unfortunately, many of these behavior issues may be signs of a mental health challenge.
  • Changing routines: Early childhood covers a significant number of social, emotional, and physical changes. An extreme change of diet, sleep, activity level, or mood, however, can be a sign of a mental health disorder.
  • Complaining of physical symptoms: Young children may have difficulties identifying mental stress from physical stress. If a child frequently complains of headaches or stomach aches without a medical cause, then this may be a sign of toxic stress.

It’s important to note that these symptoms can change over time. While difficulties interacting with others is an important symptom, the way that symptom presents itself in a one-year-old child can be very different than an eight-year-old child.

Remember that mental health disorders display themselves in different ways in different children. Don’t wait until you see one particular symptom, but consider reaching out to a medical health professional if you notice any of these or other serious symptoms. Mental health disorders prevent children from participating in daily, age-appropriate routines. They also typically last for weeks or longer.

These symptoms can become apparent for you as a teacher or parent, since you may spend more time with a child than anyone else. Medical health professionals may rely in part on your report of these and other symptoms as part of an evaluation.

What to Do If You Think a Child Might Have Early Childhood Mental Health

If you notice one or more of the symptoms explained in chapter three, then it may be time to reach out to an early childhood mental health expert. As a teacher, MentalHealth.gov recommends you reach out to emergency services to receive immediate help in the event of a crisis. If a child appears to be a risk to themself or others, then reach out to one of these services:

Educators should also consider reaching out to in-school specialists and parents or guardians, depending on the situation and school policies. These emergency lines are also useful for parents seeking immediate assistance in an early childhood mental health emergency.

For situations that don’t require emergency intervention, parents should consider scheduling an appointment with their family practitioner. Your child’s doctor can field questions and conduct an assessment of your child’s mental health. If necessary, a primary care doctor can also refer you to local specialists for behavior therapy and other therapeutic care. In some cases, psychiatric medications may be an effective treatment or part of a treatment plan for young children, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Always talk to your doctor and review the side effects and risks before assisting your child in taking any medication.

Reaching out to a professional should be your first step. There are, however, additional ways you can assist a child. These activities shouldn’t replace care by a mental health professional, but can help be positive exercises for young children, according to the National Association of School Psychologists:

  • Encourage physical health
  • Create healthy eating, sleeping, and playing routines
  • Encourage helping others
  • Reinforcing positive behaviors
  • Create a safe, positive environment
  • Promote resilience in difficult situations

Early Childhood Mental Health Resources

Find the help you need to improve access to early childhood mental health prevention and care. Explore the resources available for both teachers and parents to identify support networks and steps you can take.

Resources for Teachers

Resources for Parents

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