Certain mental health problems can emerge during early childhood and have serious, lifelong consequences for learning, social skills, and physical health. Children can develop disorders like anxiety, attention deficit disorder, impulse-control disorder, behavioral problems, depression, post-traumatic stress, and neurodevelopment disabilities, like autism, among others. Young children display these symptoms and process their responses to them differently than older children, adolescents, and adults do, so diagnosing them can be more difficult. This could explain the scarcity of studies on children under age five, which limits our understanding of mental health in early childhood.
From the few studies available, we can say that one out of every five children between the ages of one and five years old has some psychiatric condition that requires care. Unfortunately, many of these studies were performed in developed, economically stable countries without situations of social conflict or violence, so these rates are probably much higher in countries at war or with extreme poverty, or in children from families that have been forced to migrate.
Epigenesis, a complex but necessary term
Developmental psychopathology, which is the branch of science that studies these mental health problems, uses the term “probabilistic epigenesis” to refer to how we study the emergence of these disorders in infants and young children. Basically, this concept describes how the factors that influence a person’s well-being and development over the course of their life make them more or less likely to develop a pathology.
Traumatic experiences during childhood, including abuse, exposure to domestic violence, and disruption of attachment relationships are significant development risks that later lead to mental health vulnerabilities and difficulties. The toxic stress generated by strong, frequent, or prolonged biological reactions to adversity can damage children’s still-developing brain architecture and increase their likelihood of developing mental health problems.
Protecting mental health in early childhood: an urgent appeal
Evidence shows that mental health problems in children’s early years have serious short- and long-term consequences. Children with mental health problems are at greater risk of having difficulties in school and with their classmates, future employment problems, problems with consuming alcohol and other abusive substances, and broken relationships, as well as higher risks of domestic violence, criminal activity, juvenile delinquency, and even suicide.
For example, a longitudinal study that followed a cohort of children ages one through four years old showed that two thirds of the children who had emotional and behavioral problems at that age continued to have psychopathological difficulties, showing that early socioemotional problems can be persistent if they are not identified and treated effectively and promptly.
For this reason, we must take early, preventive, and evidence-based action. The well-being of young children is directly tied to how their caregivers behave. When these relationships are trusting, receptive, and supportive, they can protect children from the harmful effects of stressors.
The next post in this series about childhood and mental health will share the actions that both families and school communities can take to protect children’s well-being. Don’t miss it!